A report by Matthew de George for Swinning World Magazine.
Jarod Arroyo has crafted the last several years of his swimming life to reduce uncertainty. It’s why the Puerto Rican record holder deferred his enrollment at Arizona State University after graduating high school in 2019, hoping to enroll after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It’s why he relocated to Tempe in high school to train with Pitchfork Aquatics.
And it’s why, amid the uncertainty wrought by COVID-19 on the college swimming season, Arroyo found peace in the Sun Devils’ announcement last month that its entire team would redshirt the 2020-21 season as the NCAA and its conference sort out competition dynamics. It’s another item on the list of possible obstacles cleared, Arroyo knowing exactly where his training and college eligibility stand.
“Honestly for me, it couldn’t have been more perfect,” Jarod Arroyo told Swimming World. “I know for other athletes, that’s not necessarily the case because they don’t have the competition of the Pac-12 and NCAAs, but in terms of me and my swimming, it’s perfect for me. I don’t really have any uncertainty.”
Arroyo has played the long game angling toward the Tokyo Olympics. While the COVID-19 postponement has changed the trajectory, it hasn’t altered the journey’s focus.
Arroyo moved from Utah back to his native Arizona at age 16. He enrolled at ASU Prep Tempe and was part of the inaugural graduating class at that charter school in 2019, continuing his swimming tutelage under Fernando Canales at Pitchfork Aquatics. The gap year before college was aimed at best preparing to reach Tokyo.
The change to the plan wrought by the coronavirus has been an unexpected complication, but one he’s taking in stride.
“Honestly, it’s been like a roller coaster of emotion,” Arroyo said. “It is a big letdown not having the Olympics this year, especially when I was so close to qualifying and on track to qualify. But after quarantining for five months or however long it was, I came to the realization that everything happens for the reason and next year, if they have the games, I’ll still be able to compete. And since then, I’ve just tried to keep my head up and focus on what I can do instead of what I can’t control, which is whether the Games will happen.”
The pause in competition came just as Arroyo’s momentum was cresting. At the TYR Pro Swim Series stop in Knoxville in January, he set a best time in the 400 individual medley at 4:16.67, bettering his Puerto Rican record. The time brought Arroyo within a second of the Olympic A cut (4:15.84) and perpetuated his confidence that it was only a matter of time before he whittled away that last eight-tenths of a second.
That swim came on the heels of a productive summer of 2019, Arroyo doing the World Championships-Pan American Games double. In Gwangju, he finished 18th in the 400 IM, 24th in the 200 IM and 30th in the 200 butterfly. With a quick turnaround to Pan Ams in Lima, Peru, he took fifth in the 400 IM, albeit more than four seconds slower than at Worlds and six seconds shy of his Pro Swim Series time. He was 10th at Pan Ams in the 200 fly and 10th in prelims of the 200 IM before withdrawing from the B final.
But then came COVID-19, the incremental shutdown of the swimming world in March and a halt to that progress. Since then, Arroyo describes the challenge of restarting as primarily mental. He’s been in the water since early July, an early return that he’s grateful for, after trying to stay in shape at home during quarantine. He’s been elevated to training with Bob Bowman’s elite group at Pitchfork.
The physical perseverance will come with time and effort, to which he’s no stranger. But in talking with Canales, he’s tried to square away the mental aspect.
“(Canales) told me, you never lose that good work that you do in the pool unless you take like a year off,” Arroyo said. “We called it a pause in my momentum. It didn’t go away and it didn’t get better; it just paused for a while. So now that pools are opening up and going into the fall season, I’m deciding to continue that momentum gain, and I feel like I haven’t lost anything, I just need to get back to it. It’s been more challenging than I thought, but I think that’s what everyone is feeling right now.”
The emotional impact of competition is never far from Arroyo’s mind, given what representing Puerto Rico means to him. Such is his profile as a Puerto Rican athlete that three years ago, he was one of 25 athletes to earn a $25,000 training grant from one of the island’s favorite sons, actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, to defray costs of training and travel. It even came with an invite to see Hamilton with Miranda in San Juan, though Arroyo’s training obligations meant he had to decline.
With all the island has been through, from the leveling by Hurricane Maria in 2018 to a series of damaging earthquakes that have roiled throughout this year to the specter of COVID-19 that luckily hasn’t hit the island as hard as many other places, it offers Arroyo a certain perspective. And in the mental battle to remain on track, his focus on what it means to swim for Puerto Rico is integral.
“Representing Puerto Rico for me is such a great honor,” Jarod Arroyo said. “I’m so grateful that I have the opportunity to do that. … Even though (Puerto Ricans) have been through so many trials and hardship, they still get so much happiness out of life, and to be able to represent people like that, it’s such a great honor for me personally.”