By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Joe Del Buono wasn’t the strongest swimmer for the Somerset Valley YMCA team up until high school, but the club stuck with him and the Hillsborough resident stuck with the sport.
It paid off when Del Buono won the 50-meter butterfly race at the YMCA Nationals in Indianapolis last week.
“It’s greater than I expected,” said Del Buono, who set a personal best of 25.58 seconds. “I have won a national title in relays. Our team has been very strong in the medley relay and we’ve gotten first for four years now. I’ve been on winning relays the last two years. This is the first individual title I’ve had.”
Del Buono remembers a time not so long ago when he wasn’t as strong of a swimmer. There wasn’t much indication of his potential.
“When I was younger, I actually wasn’t that fast at all,” he said. “I started to improve my freshman year. I had my growth spurt and I kept improving from then on. I definitely was not faster when I was younger.”
Del Buono has come a long way since he started high school juggling two sports. He chose to follow his long-time passion — swimming.
“Going into high school, I played baseball and swam,” said Del Buono, who graduated from Rutgers Prep. “I was probably a little better at baseball, but I had just been swimming so long that I couldn’t see myself giving up, so I had to quit baseball. I tried baseball my freshman year but it didn’t work out with baseball. I quit baseball and just did swimming.
“It shows me I think I made the right decision. I don’t have any regrets on not playing baseball. I’m completely happy with my decision.”
Del Buono showed steady improvement through high school. He emerged as a top-flight swimmer and a national champion this year.
“In swimming, your junior year is your most important year,” he said. “I had an OK year, not as good as I wanted. Out of all my years, I’d say my senior year was my best. I had a pretty big jump in short course — the winter season. I dropped two or three seconds in my 100 fly, which is unheard of when you’re older. I had a really great senior year and I ended with a bang. I was excited about that. It wasn’t a huge jump that allowed me to place that well in the 50 fly, but it was definitely a significant jump.”
It came with plenty of dedication and hard work. Del Buono was driven and focused in his training.
“Throughout my high school career, I’ve always known fly would be my best stroke,” he said. “I was most comfortable swimming fly. I always worked on fly and this past year, I really started working on fly even more. Whenever we did stroke sets and could choose our own sets, I always did butterfly, even if they were longer sets when butterfly would be hard. That helped me a lot. Being comfortable with the stroke is very important. That definitely helped.”
His was one of two national titles that the SVY team could celebrate. The 200-meter freestyle relay of Holly Christensen, Alex Gebel, Hillsborough resident Megan Bull and Katrina Kuhn swam 1:45.94 for the victory.
“I thought that they showed a lot of heart in that relay,” said SVY nationals coach Dan Roth. “One of the things that might not be well known, there was an Olympic Trials qualifier for one of the teams from South Carolina and she flew in that night. She wasn’t on the relay in the morning when we were the top seed going into finals, and the girls knew that she was going to be on that relay and they didn’t waver. They were determined to come away with a national title.”
The win was the 14th national relay win for SVY in six meets since 2012. It’s only the second on the girls side, and it took the combined efforts of four girls from four different schools.
“That team really embodies our program,” Roth said. “It was cool to have a bunch of different schools represented.”
SVY placed sixth overall. It was another strong showing from a team that has developed steadily through the years.
“We had a great meet as a team,” Roth said. “Compared to previous years, we’re right on par in the top five discussion. We were sixth overall. This was a fun nationals for us. We have a number of graduating seniors who for them this was their last meet. To see the seniors step up and go out with a bang and win some national titles and pass the torch along, and the people they passed the torch along to, some of the younger swimmers, the rising stars who are going to take the reins here. They started to emerge and come out and establish themselves. I think the seniors would agree the team is in good hands moving forward.”
The national championships highlighted the efforts and headlined the team’s efforts. They earned plaques that will be displayed with pride.
“It’s a pretty special thing to be on a winning relay at a meet like Y Nationals,” Roth said. “It really takes four girls that are disciplined and have an incredible work ethic and are committed to excellence.
“Winning an individual title is also an incredible accomplishment,” Roth added. “Joe was our only individual champion in this past summer. It’s definitely something that doesn’t happen often and few have a chance to experience. Joe is somebody who has really evolved as a leader for us this year and has matured into somebody that the team could count on when the team needed him most.”
Del Buono was thrilled to come away with a national crown in his final Y Nationals meet. He also teamed up to place third in the 200 medley relay with Hillsborough’s Brad Zdroik and Sam Hendrix along with Christopher Ruhnke. Del Buono was in the top three finals in his three events — the 50 fly, the 100 fly, the 50 free and 100 free.
“I did fine in the 50 and 100,” Del Buono said. “The 100 free was my last swim and I was kind of happy with it. I got a best time so I was happy with it.”
Del Buono will continue to swim next year while attending the Stern School of Business at New York University. He is joining an NYU team on the rise.
“NYU hadn’t been that good at swimming in the past,” Del Buono noted. “Three years ago they got a new coach and he completely overhauled the program so NYU is on the rise as a collegiate swimming program. I think we placed fourth at NCAAs for Division 3. I’m going as a freshman and the upcoming junior class is the first class he recruited that is just a bunch of fast kids. We’re getting faster and getting bigger. The first two years, he kept pulling in kids and now he’s starting to implement cuts.
“It’s a very good academic school and it has a very competitive swim team,” he added. “I can continue my passion and get a good education.”
Like NYU, Del Buono has been on the rise. He got his start innocently when the SVY team asked him to swim as a 6 year old because they didn’t have a lot of young swimmers.
“I liked it so much I joined their winter team — SVY — and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Del Buono said. “I got dragged over to SVY from Hurricanes.”
Now Del Buono is helping to share his passion for swimming with up-and-coming swimmers. He picked up a last-minute opportunity to coach at Raritan Valley Country Club and enjoyed it.
“Next year, I’m planning on coaching back at Raritan and SVY has a collegiate program and I’ll do that to stay in shape,” Del Buono said. “I can do USA meets. I think the age limit is 21.”
Del Buono is a perfect example to budding swimmers. He is living proof that development takes time and that a commitment does not go unrewarded.
“Joe is somebody who has really emerged over the last couple of seasons as somebody that has got national potential,” Roth said. “He’s a great story to tell our age groupers as far as if you want to make a difference, and you want to make nationals and score points some day for the team, all you have to do it commit to evolving and growing as a person and the results will come.”
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group