By Dan Guttenplan
UMass swimming coach Russ Yarworth didn't have a spot on his team for Newburyport's Dan Backler four years ago when the Triton senior was making his college decision.
Backler, who was being recruited by several schools, chose to attend University of Rhode Island, where he could swim as a freshman.
Soon after his freshman season, Backler had to rethink his college decision when URI cut its men's swimming program. A year after he chose URI over UMass, Backler found Yarworth to be a willing recruiter.
"I thought he'd be a good depth swimmer for us," Yarworth said. "He knew I didn't have a roster spot for him a year earlier, so I wasn't sure if he was interested."
Backler surpassed Yarworth's expectations for three seasons. The UMass senior captain closed out his collegiate swimming career with an Atlantic-10 Championship title in the 100 breaststroke (55.89) Feb. 25. He was also a member of the A-10 title-winning 400 medley relay, and for the third year in a row, he placed third in the 200 breast (2:03.87).
"He can walk away from the pool, after winning that 100 breast, holding his head high," Yarworth said. "I couldn't have predicted he'd swim that fast. It was one of the highlights of my coaching career. It was one of those swims — I'm getting goose bumps thinking about it."
Backler's first-place finish gave UMass a lead it would not relinquish en route to its fifth consecutive A-10 title. Backler was one of five UMass seniors to close out his career with a personal-best time. His 100 breast finish was 1.34 seconds faster than his time in the same event at A-10 Championships during his junior year.
"I knew I won right when I hit the wall," Backler said. "I was racing two kids who both went out faster than me. I was losing the whole race until the last wall. I owe it to my training, and I was able to bring it back stronger."
Backler was not seeded in the top 15 going into the preliminaries of the 100 breast. He put himself on the map by posting the fastest time in the morning swim, qualifying first for finals. He then took home the title at night by making a nearly perfect third turn, which provided the momentum to move from third to first over the final 25 yards.
Backler credited this season's drop in time to increased dry-land training, which focused on cross-training and agility exercises. Before URI cut its program in 2008, the swim team did not train with the same intensity as UMass, Backler said.
"I don't think I would have come this far down there," Backler said. "The quality of the program is better here. I'm happy at UMass, and it's a great school academically. Everything happens for a reason."
Backler does not plan to continue his competitive swimming career after college. He has struggled with shoulder soreness for the past two seasons and is currently looking for Internet marketing jobs in the New England area.
"I think he's ready to hang up his suit and goggles," Yarworth said. "His success is a combination of coaching, hard work, talent and a great attitude. You can never discount the team dynamic. It's a championship-oriented team, and kids do whatever they can to reach that level."
The Backler File
Name: Dan Backler
High School: Triton Regional (Class of 2007)
College: UMass Amherst (Class of 2011)
Event: 100 breast (55.89), 200 breast (2:03.87)
News: Closed out career with A-10 title in 100 breast