SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- As a youngster, it was the illusive dream. All of the best swimmers in school swam for the Fanwood-Scotch Plains YMCA (FSPY). While he saw his fair share of success swimming for Laura Bransky with the Central Jersey Barracudas at the JCC - he set several team records and was one of the top swimmers in the league - Chris Bondarowicz failed to make the FSPY team the first two times he tried out.
It finally changed during the summer of 2013 when his third time was the charm. While he wasn’t planning on trying out again, a friend convinced him it was a good idea. He showed just enough that the coaches finally gave him a shot as he was also about to enter his freshman year at Scotch Plains Fanwood High School. It was also the impetus he needed to make the decision to put his hopes of making the fabled SPFHS soccer team aside and set his sights on making the SPF swim team instead – albeit the tryouts would be three months away.
Little by little, he started to discover just how much he loved the sport of swimming. But while he knew he loved it, he was constantly “running scared.” His first meet for FSPY was the annual Red-Black meet where the coaches evaluate where the swimmers are in late September to break them into teams. He wanted to make the top team – and he did. From there, his goal shifted to making the SPF high school team – and he did. Then, he wanted to do well at FSPY’s trip to the annual Long Island Invitational meet.
“That was the big meet, I thought to myself,” Bondarowicz recounted. “In middle school, I remember swimmers took days off from school for it and I always wanted to go, too.”
At that meet, held at the Nassau County Aquatic Center – a world class facility built for the Goodwill Games -- he won the 100 and 200 breaststroke events. In the 200 race, it was the first time he ever even swam that distance at a meet.
From there, the goal shifted to making finals at the Union County Championships – which he did, finishing 6th as a freshman. Next, it was doing well at the YMCA State Championships that March. While he finished third in the 13-14 age group in the 100 Breaststroke, he fell just 0.10 short of his next goal – making it to YMCA Nationals. That might have been the last time he failed in the pool.
He earned that first qualifying time for YMCA Nationals later that June – his birthday weekend and his first ever race at Princeton University’s famed DeNunzio Pool.
Bondarowicz went on to have a stellar career as a swimmer both for FSPY and for SPF High School. He became a two-time champion at the Union County High School Championship as a junior and senior after a 3rd place finish his sophomore year – an event for which he now holds the County record. He also went on to be a two-time winner in the 200 IM event too. He helped lead the Raiders to three straight NJSIAA Public B State Finals. He placed 2nd as a junior in the 100 Breaststroke at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions and became the school’s sole State Champion in the event as a senior. The recent graduate leaves the Raiders as the school record holder in the 200 IM, 100 Breaststroke, and several relays.
For FSPY, he continued to excel as well. He went on to win the state championship in both the 100 and 200 Breaststroke events at the YMCA State Short Course Championships as a junior– breaking the state meet record in the latter by just 0.01. Three weeks later he was looking to make an impression on a bigger stage as he was seeded in the top 5 for YMCA Short Course National Championships in Greensboro, NC.
On the way down to North Carolina, though, adversity set in again.
“I actually come down with strep throat and the flu on the way to Greensboro and passed out when we stopped for dinner,” Bondarowicz recounted. “When we got to Greensboro, I spent six hours that first night in the emergency room.”
All those dreams of the medal stand were suddenly dashed. He struggled through warm-ups the next day trying to muster the energy, but it was no hope. By Tuesday, he was ready to go home. But, in a defining moment, he stopped complaining about being sick and just took it upon himself to get better. He focused on getting ready for the 100 Breast event that Thursday – a mere day and a half away. After a day of rest and medication, he mustered enough energy to sneak into the A Finals as the 8th finisher in preliminaries and earned the return trip to finals that night.
“It was probably one of my most memorable moments in my swimming career,” says Bondarowicz. “Just a couple of days before, I was ready to give up. But all I could do was just suck it up, get healthy enough, and just give it my best. Luckily, it was good enough to make it to Finals.”
That race was also memorable for a different reason too – it was the one that caught the eye of the U.S. Naval Academy’s assistant coach Mark Liscinsky, who was in attendance that night. Not only did Bondarowicz make finals, he was also able to move up to 7th place – something that seemed impossible just a couple of days before.
Bondarowicz would end the summer with YMCA Long Course Nationals in Indianapolis where he was a silver medalist in the 100m and 200m Breaststroke and 5th in the 50m Breaststroke. In December, he swam at AT&T USA Swimming Winter Nationals, where he swam next to U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Kevin Cordes in preliminaries and qualified for the C Finals in the 200 Breaststroke.
In his return to Greensboro for YMCA Short Course Nationals for the final time, Chris finished 3rd in the 100 Breast and 4th in the 200 Breast. In his final race for FSPY, he finished at 1:03.60 in the 100m Breast – a time that would have qualified him for the 2016 US Olympic Trials and a FINA World Champions B Qualifying Time. (Watch the race here.)
“While I was happy to achieve that goal, it was more important for me to hit that time to help FSPY earn consideration as a Silver Medal Club from USA Swimming,” said Bondarowicz. “It was my way of giving something back for all that FSPY has helped me accomplish.”
While swimming was a passion, it was hardly his only pursuit. Bondarowicz earned the rank of Eagle Scout award last July. You can see his Eagle Scout project at the Fanwood Nature Center where he led a team of scouts in installing multiple bat boxes to help control the local mosquito population. As a student, he was an honor student and a member of the National Honor Society.
Despite overtures from schools such as University of Tennessee, LSU, and Virginia Tech, Princeton, and Yale, Bondarowicz decided to pursue another dream in attending the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He reports for Plebe Summer on Thursday, June 29th.
“These last four years were just amazing,” reflects Bondarowicz, a two-time Yeti MMA Athlete of the Week this season. “I could never imagine that it would turn out this way and I am so appreciative of all of the people who helped me accomplish all the things I was able to.”