Riverside-Brookfield swimming standout Graham Risley readily admits swimming at Penn State has been a major adjustment.
“It’s definitely a huge change going from high school to college,” Risley said. “I expected swimming in college to be hard and that I would get broken down at times. It’s a full-time job and can get stressful at times.”
Risley’s admission, coupled with an untimely bout of mononucleosis and scarlet fever this season, qualified his performance in the pool all the more remarkable.
“I missed about half of the season because I was out with mono and strep throat,” Risley said. “I started to train around Christmas in Florida. I swim the backstroke so you need good legs and I concentrated on kicking. I just tried to stay positive and do the best I could.”
In March, Risley’s positive attitude and work ethic were rewarded with a stellar showing at the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships held at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center. The Nittany Lions’ 200 medley relay of Risley, Mitch Scherer, Sean Grier and Brian Alden earned All-America honors for its 10th place finish. In the preliminaries, the quartet set a new school record with a time of 1:25.74 (eclipsing the previous record of 1:26.59).
“I think the biggest reason for our success was that we all get along so well,” said Alden, who is also Risley’s roommate on campus. “Considering Graham was out for about half the year, I think it speaks volumes about his talent and dedication that he swam so well.”
At the Big Ten Championships, Risley recorded a fourth-place finish in the 100 backstroke. After swimming a B cut 48.65 in the 100 backstroke, Risley moved on to the A Final. The Riverside resident produced a career-best time of 47.27 en route to his fourth-place showing.
“Honestly, the Big Ten and nationals are what we really train for during the season,” he said. “Conferences like the Pac-10 and SEC focus a bit more on nationals. In the Big Ten, all the teams really want to win our conference as a main goal. After missing half of the season, I did a lot better than I thought I would at both tournaments.”
Risley debuted well during his freshman campaign (2009-10) with the Nittany Lions, achieving the following results at the Big Ten Championships: season-best 50.07 in the 100 butterfly, a time of 1:49.59 in the 200 IM to qualify for the finals, and being a member of the third-place 200 medley relay (1:26.65).
Looking ahead to next year, Risley is focused on having a healthy, successful junior season. At 6-foot-1, 178 pounds, the versatile swimmer will likely compete in the 100 backstroke, 200 backstroke, 100 butterfly and 200 medley relay for Penn State, which finished sixth in the Big Ten over the spring.
“We have a really good group of guys,” Risley said about his teammates. “Our 200 medley relay team knew we could do well this year. When I was a freshman and we had two sophomores on the 200 medley, we took third [in conference]. We felt like we could swim faster this year.
Next year, I’ll be looking for a Top 3 finish in the backstroke at Big Tens. I just missed it this year. Obviously, I would love to get first [place] in conference.”
If Risley achieves top backstroke honors in conference next season, he will have to surpass his close friend Eric Ress from Indiana University. Ress is one of the best backstrokers in the country.
“Eric and I are good friends,” Risley said. “Tom Shields from Cal [University] and Eric are the top backstroke swimmers in the country. I enjoy the challenge of competing against those kinds of swimmers.”
Interestingly enough, Risley’s father, Jay, and Ress’ dad swam together in college. While swimming occupies a considerable amount of his time, Risley has soaked in the collective experience of life in Happy Valley.
“Penn State is great,” he said. “The campus is beautiful and the town [University Park] has a really good relationship with the university. Penn State football is a lot of fun and it’s one of the top schools academically in the Big Ten.”
Risley, studying liberal arts, is spending the summer back home. The 20-year-old has been coaching youth at the Riverside Swim Club and spending time with his former RB coaches Todd Fridrych and Heather Mathis.
“I’m still really close with Todd and Heather,” Risley said. “I really enjoyed swimming at RB. I loved the guys on our team and we had a lot of fun.”
Risley set 11 swim records while at RB and captured a pair of third-place finishes in the 100-yard butterfly (48.56) and 100-yard backstroke (49.78) at the 2009 state finals. He single-handedly led the Bulldogs to an 18th place showing (24 points) at state. He was also a four-year letter winner in water polo. Risley earned the Bulldogs’ Male Athlete of the Year that same year, graduating as the most decorated swimmer in school history.