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Spotlight finds Clearwater swimmer Bobby Finke as Tokyo Olympics approach

The University of Florida standout won both the 800 and 1,500 to qualify for his first Summer Games.
Bobby Finke gets ready to compete in the men's 1,500-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. He ended up winning the event to qualify for Tokyo.
Bobby Finke gets ready to compete in the men's 1,500-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. He ended up winning the event to qualify for Tokyo. [ CHARLIE NEIBERGALL | Associated Press ]
Published Jul. 13
Updated Jul. 13

Bobby Finke stood quietly in the back row for a group photo when the Countryside High School boys finished third overall at the 2016 Class 4A state meet.

The Clearwater native won both his individual events, the 200-yard individual medley and 500 freestyle. And in doing so, he earned 40 of the team’s 160 total points, or one-fourth, by himself. His coach, Scott Hernon, had to plead with Finke to show his face for the camera after all he had accomplished that weekend.

“You’ll never find Bobby in the front of a picture,” Hernon said. “You’ll never find Bobby with his arms out saying, ‘Look at me.’”

Now Finke, 21, is about to embark on the ultimate “look at me event,” qualifying for his first Olympic Games after winning both the 800-meter freestyle, a new event on the men’s side, and the 1,500 free at Trials.

If he could travel back in time and tell a younger version of himself that he would become an Olympian, Finke doesn’t think he’d believe it.

“I think he’d just stare at me,” said Finke, who swims for the University of Florida. “I have no idea, I guess (he’d say), ‘I think you’re crazy.’”

Bobby Finke also was a standout while at Countryside High, winning multiple state titles.
Bobby Finke also was a standout while at Countryside High, winning multiple state titles. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times (2016) ]

One of his older sisters would have done the opposite.

“I would say, ‘I know,’” said Summer Finke, who used to get goosebumps watching her brother swim.

The Finke siblings — Autumn, Summer and Bobby — were active growing up. Autumn and Summer did dance and gymnastics. Bobby played soccer and flag football. While their mom Jeanne swam at Ball State, there were no set expectations for her children to take up swimming competitively. She and her husband Joe, who coaches at St. Petersburg Aquatics, enrolled the kids in swim lessons so they would learn water safety, but the choice to stick with it was all their own.

Autumn, who also swam at UF, and Summer, who swam at FSU and N.C. State, started competitive swimming when they were about 7 and 6 years old. Bobby, being a few years younger, tagged along when he could, splashing around, diving into the deep end of the pool and doing cannonballs when he wasn’t supposed to. He finally joined them at age 5.

“We would all sit in the backseat of the car (on the way to practice),” Summer said. “I was the middle child, and I’d be in the middle of Bobby and Autumn. So, it was definitely an activity that brought us closer together.”

In addition to the 1,500, Bobby Finke also won the 800 free in Olympic qualifying, giving him two shots at individual gold in Tokyo.
In addition to the 1,500, Bobby Finke also won the 800 free in Olympic qualifying, giving him two shots at individual gold in Tokyo. [ JEFF ROBERSON | Associated Press ]

Bobby’s journey to the Olympics was a family affair from the start. The 4 a.m. car rides from their home in Clearwater to morning practice in St. Petersburg before school. The countless hours spent in hotel rooms for out-of-town competition. The routine homemade pasta dinners they shared the night before every meet for the sake of carb loading. It had all been worth it.

“Just knowing that not only his hard work,” Summer said, “but all of what we did helped him get to where he is, it’s (made me) absolutely speechless.”

In 2016, all three of the Finke siblings competed at Trials. Bobby unexpectedly made the 1,500 final, finishing seventh in 15:15.52, which became the fifth-fastest time ever swam by someone in the 15-16 age group. After his preliminary swim, Swimming World Magazine went to interview Bobby when both of his sisters came over and wrapped him in a tight hug. Summer, her voice weak from happy tears she cried during his swim, told him in between sobs and giggles, “You did so good, Bobby. We’re so proud of you.”

At Trials this year, the four-time All-American finished the 1,500 in 14:46.06, nearly 15 seconds ahead of the next swimmer, solidifying him as the-fifth fastest American ever in the event.

When Summer watched her brother out-touch the rest of the field, this time on TV from home, she cried again.

“How do I tell people that my brother’s an Olympian? Because that’s how I want to introduce myself,” Summer said. “I’m like, ‘Hi, my name is Summer Finke. My brother made the Olympics if you didn’t know.’”

Making the team is a feat in itself. But Anthony Nesty, the head swim coach at UF and an assistant coach for the Olympics, said Bobby and Kieran Smith (who won the 200 and 400 freestyle) still have a lot of work to do before the Games begin July 24 if they want to secure a spot on the podium. But anything seems possible after the year these guys have had.

UF’s swim team, like many others, had to take three months off during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic before hopping back in the pool in last July. Getting back into swimming shape is no easy task. Miss a day of practice, and it could take two to feel as good as you did before.

“I didn’t see our pre-COVID fitness until April,” Nesty said of his team. “It was pretty stressful.”

Luckily, April was just early enough for Bobby and Smith to post personal bests at Trials en route to their first Olympic team. In combination with UF alumnus Caeleb Dressel, Gators swept the men’s individual freestyle events this year.

“That’s the reward you’re looking for,” Nesty said, “because in our profession, obviously you look for championships, but most importantly you look for improvement in your athletes.”

Bobby Finke's 1,500 at Olympic Trials was so fast that no competitors were near him at the finish.
Bobby Finke's 1,500 at Olympic Trials was so fast that no competitors were near him at the finish. [ JEFF ROBERSON | Associated Press ]

As far as championships go, Bobby looks to bring home the first 1,500 gold medal to the United States since Mike O’Brien won in 1984 and the first-ever gold in the 800.

But with no fans allowed in Tokyo, Summer and Autumn will watch his Olympic debut from at an NBCUniversal resort in Orlando along with other family members of Olympians, then they’ll join the rest of Bobby’s supporters at home. She said there’s a tentative Team USA-themed watch party planned in which she’ll bake some patriotic treats and decorate the family living room red, white and blue. She hopes to create a display of support that Bobby will feel more than 7,200 miles away.

Hernon said Countryside will put up a banner of its newest Olympian in the gym. The 8- or 12-by-10-foot picture will hang next to the one of Melanie Margalis, a former Cougar who represented the United States five years ago in Rio.

That humble kid from Clearwater who used to hide from the cameras is now a local legend destined for the international spotlight.