Tribune top five male athletes No. 4: Cam Peel

Duncan MacLean • Jul 11, 2018 at 12:13 AM

The Tribune is counting down our top five male and female athletes, as well as teams for the 2017-18 athletic season. Our No. 4 male athlete of the year is Spring Lake’s Cam Peel.

A historic season for the Spring Lake boys swim and dive team landed them a spot on our top teams contest this week. No one on that team broke more notable barriers than their head sprinter in charge, Cam Peel.

Nearing the conclusion of his first full-boar long course season last weekend, Peel took on the 50-meter freestyle at the TYR Pro Swim Series at Columbus, Ohio, with a goal time of 23.99 seconds — the Junior National Championship cut.

Swimming in a field featuring Olympians, Peel turned in a devastating 24.00, tying for 36th overall. Michigan Lakeshore Aquatics coach Jim Whitehead saw an opportunity and argued for a swim-off. A few scratches, common at a meet of this caliber, could put the pair on the border of coming back for finals. The officials bought it, agreeing for a one-on-one tiebreaking re-run of the event.

Peel made the most of the opportunity, dropping half of a second to turn in a 23.52, defeating his opponent by two body lengths to earn a spot at the big dance in Irvine, California at the end of the month.

“I said, ‘What in the world, where did that come from?’” said Cam’s father and Spring Lake boys swim coach Rob Peel. “He said, ‘I don’t know, I just dove in and turned it up.’”

A holder of eight All-State awards, four school records, two All-Conference honors, a 2018 state title in the 100-yard freestyle and a spot on the Spring Lake all-time top 10 list in every swimming event, Peel’s high school resume is a complete work.

In the offseason, Peel takes his talents to a beach due south to bolster his recruitability and national profile with MLA. His time on the USA club circuit has been as fruitful, providing a fresh stream of accolades and opportunities, directly influencing his runaway success at the high school level.

All the success was nearly never realized, as an impossibly casual decision brought Peel back into the swimming world ahead of his freshman season at Spring Lake. From bored to ballistic, Peel’s journey to the top of West Michigan swimming resembles his signature races — an enthusiastic, determined and unparalleled burst of speed.

“Just before high school, in August or September, he came to me and said, ‘You know, I think I’ll swim in high school,’” Rob Peel said. “He had taken a few years off in junior high and done other things. I’m certain he didn’t anticipate he would get this into it. That time off was probably good for him.”

“He is a self-made swimmer,” Whitehead said. “He got in and got serious a little late. When he first started with us, it was a last-ditch effort to keep him in the sport. He was on his way out. Swimming wasn’t all that exciting for him.”

As a freshman, Peel qualified for the MHSAA state meet as a member of the Laker relays. His only individual swim was the 200 individual medley, a far cry from his sprint specialty now. He took modest consolation final finishes across the board.

Flash forward one year and Peel was leading Spring Lake to All-State honors along with a core of surprising, young athletes. A sub 21-second 50 freestyle split in the 200 freestyle relay and two top-six finishes individually in the 50 and 100 freestyle marked the arrival of the sophomore sprinter and his rekindled love for his sport.

Another year gone by and Peel levied his now year-round dedication to a ballistic 2018 state meet, highlighted by a gold-medal finish in the 100 freestyle, clocking in at 44.97, breaking the Division 3 state record set in 2009. The development was hard to believe, even for dad.

“At the 2017 state meet in Holland, Cam got third in the 100 with a 46.6, or something, and I was thinking, ‘Wow. That time is awesome. So good!’ It was such a cool thing,” Rob Peel said. “He came back and set these great big goals for 2018. He told me at the beginning of the season he wanted to be under 45 seconds. I wasn’t about to tell him, ‘Hey kid, that’s kinda crazy,’ but it was! It really seemed crazy.”

A full year of hard work and shattered expectations put the stratospheric goals in perspective, with the Lakers headed for their best team finish in history, the sky seemed to be the limit.

“At the state prelims, he wasn’t all that fast,” Rob Peel said. “In the finals, he swam the perfect race. He had done exactly what he had wanted to do all year long. There was a problem with the scoreboard, so it took five or 10 seconds to show the time. It was pretty hard to stay composed during that delay. When the time finally flashed up, it was, wow!

“When it all comes together for any swimmer it is special. When it happens to be your son, wow. It was probably a bigger deal for me than it was for him. In high school, a state title is as big as it gets.”

Peel combined the title with a bronze-medal finish in the 50 freestyle, clocking in at a blistering time of 20.87 and anchored the Lakers’ runner-up medley relay in 20.30.

He saved his best for last, going ballistic in the final leg of Spring Lake’s runner-up 400 freestyle relay for a split of 43.78, becoming one of three swimmers across all three divisions in Michigan to break the 44-second barrier.

The journey toward becoming Spring Lake’s most decorated swimmer isn’t just a November to March pursuit. Six days of training a week, with two-a-days on Tuesday and Thursday consume Peel’s summers now, all in the pursuit of more speed.

“It is quite a sacrifice,” Rob Peel said. “Cam has a great work ethic, and he is willing to make sacrifices to get fast. He hardly ever sees his buddies in town because he is training so much. They understand what he is trying to accomplish now, but they didn’t at first. You see a state championship and state record and you start to understand.”

“When I really got into swimming, it was because I found something I was good at. You start to wonder, ‘How fast can I get?’

“He sees his window. He knows if you really want to have an impact on your high school career and influence the college decision, he has to do it now.

“Part of the reason he has gotten so much faster is being exposed to these other fast kids at MLA practices and these big meets. When you see that routinely, you start to as yourself, what is so different about them?”

Every practice at the fastest growing club in West Michigan features weight and dryland training, as well as intense pool time. None of it is taken lightly for the “Black Group” MLA’s national-title and above bound training squad, and Peel couldn’t be happier.

“Man, he works hard. Slowing him down in practice is the hardest part,” Whitehead said. “He doesn’t like to go long and slow. He likes to explode and do exciting sets. It is never fast enough for him. He is after seeing how crazy we can get.

“He will see something online and bring it in and ask if we can do it. Just crazy stuff. As a coach, you just can’t say no to a kid like that. That enthusiasm, combined with his chill attitude and work ethic makes him a special swimmer.

The club exposure has opened doors for Peel, whose vast improvements have caught the attention of college scouts across the country. A chance to swim in Irvine, California at the Junior National Championships is nothing to scoff at, either.

“The purpose of club swimming isn’t to beat kids down and burn them out,” Whitehead said. “It is to give them opportunities. Cam is right there. I tell college coaches, he really has only been doing this seriously for a year and a half. This is his first real long course season, he has three different freestyles in his repertoire now. He has found his niche and is allowing himself to develop now.”

With one more lap through the MHSAA, it seems like the sky is the limit for Peel. With most of the accomplishment boxes checked on his high school resume, it is a wonder what he will shoot for next. Apparently, he has some ideas.

“If he achieves half of what he wants to in his senior year, wow,” Rob Peel said. “He is planning on taking advantage of all of his gifts.”

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