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How Olympian Michael Phelps helped Illinois swimmer ‘love the sport more’

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps swims to a gold medal in the men's 200m Butterfly at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette/TNS)

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U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps swims to a gold medal in the men's 200m Butterfly at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette/TNS)

By Leonor Vivanco | Chicago Tribune

A young Julius Bradsfield was testing the waters of competitive swimming in Chicago eight years ago when he met his idol — the idol of so many swimmers — Olympian Michael Phelps.

Fast-forward eight years. Bradsfield, now 20, stayed with swimming and works as a lifeguard at North Avenue Beach, competes on the water polo team at Monmouth College and has been glued to the TV watching Phelps as a dominating force in Rio de Janeiro.

His latest Facebook profile photo shows a handful of kids — including Bradsfield — wearing swim caps in a pool captivated by Phelps back in 2008 when the Olympian stopped by Fosco Park on Chicago’s Near Southwest Side fresh off winning eight gold medals in Beijing.

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At the time Bradsfield was a 12-year-old member of the Chicago Park District’s swim club and had been swimming for about four years.

“I thought he was superhuman then, and that was eight golds then. Now it just seems impossible, but he’s doing it,” said Bradsfield, who lives in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood.

“I wish I was there, I wish [the Olympics] was here. I wish we got it,” he said, referring to Chicago’s failed bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps swims in the 4x200 meter relay final at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette/TNS)

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps swims in the 4×200 meter relay final at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette/TNS)

A lucky few got to swim against Phelps that day at Fosco, and Bradsfield said he left the pool feeling inspired.

“Seeing him showed me if you work hard and stay committed you can accomplish — maybe not what he did — but great things. He made me love the sport more, made me want to stay committed to the sport,” Bradsfield said.

He went on to swim at Curie Metropolitan High School on the Southwest Side, where his water polo team was crowned city champs in Chicago Public Schools before he went on to compete at the collegiate level.

Now, he knows just how hard it is to accomplish what Phelps has.

“When they announced he had to swim after he won the gold [Thursday], I was thinking it’s hard enough to swim at the pace I do back to back. He’s swimming at world-record pace hours apart, that’s just so hard to do,” Bradsfield said.

“When I’m watching swimming, I don’t get it. I don’t understand how he’s able to do what he’s doing because usually your prime is a certain amount of years, and it seems like he hasn’t left his prime for four Olympics straight. It’s unbelievable.”

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(c) 2016 the Chicago Tribune

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The student news site of Southern Illinois University