Loyola senior Ben Dukes is looking to qualify for the state swimming and diving meet for the second consecutive season Saturday at the Niles North Sectional. Dukes plans to swim the 50-yard freestyle, 500-yard freestyle and on the 200-yard freestyle relay and 400-yard freestyle relay. As a junior, Dukes qualified for the state meet in 500 free and on the 400 free relay. The relay took 12th at the state meet. Dukes is a standout rower, too, and will take his talents to Syracuse University. The last two seasons, he’s been on Loyola boats that have qualified for the Scholastic Rowing Association of America’s national regatta. A native of Morton Grove, he attended grammar school at Sacred Heart in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. Dukes’ brother, James, is a freshman at Loyola and will swim at the sectional meet.
MAROON & GOLD: You last swam competitively at the MCAC meet Feb. 2. How are you feeling heading into the state series?
BEN DUKES: Really good. This is the best shape I’ve ever been in. The whole team is looking good, and we are ready to kill it.
M&G: At your first state meet last season, you swam the anchor leg of the 400 free relay that placed 12th. I imagine that’s one of the top moments of your career so far.
BD: That was a lot of fun. To be completely honest, I was not expecting to make the finals. Everybody was swimming incredibly fast at that meet. Our goals this year are to get to the finals and dominate.
M&G: What are some of your other favorite memories?
BD: I love this time of year. Conference, sectionals. Everybody has pushed themselves to the limit all season, and it’s enjoyable to watch your teammates go fast and get their best times.
M&G: When did you start swimming? Were you immediately drawn to the sport?
BD: I can’t remember when my mom put me in swimming. It’s been that long ago. She swam in high school and thought it would be a good sport for me and my brother. But it wasn’t something I liked doing, at least when I was younger. My brother and I always tried to get out of going to practice. It eventually grew on us. I learned to find the fun in pushing yourself to become better. It’s a game of who can take more pain. You’re always beating yourself up, but you have to keep going. I like that part of it.
M&G: Your individual events at the sectional meet are the 50 free and 500 free. One is the shortest event, while the other is the longest. Is that unusual?
BD: The 50 is a new event for me. I’m more of a long distance swimmer. But when I swam the 50 this season and started dropping time, [Loyola head coach Mike Hengelmann] said he might be able to use me in the event. I do enjoy swimming an event that lasts about 20 seconds.
M&G: Is there a stroke you don’t like swimming?
BD: Butterfly. Never been good at it, and I’m completely fine with not doing it. If I see it as part of the practice schedule, I get mad.
M&G: What is it like being a teammate with your younger brother?
BD: We haven’t swam on the same team in a few years. It’s kind of nice we can drive to practice together. That makes it easier on our parents. But I see him starting to understand what it means to work hard. He’s starting to get used to the type of training it takes to swim at Loyola. He should have a great meet at sectionals.
M&G: As good as you are at swimming, you will compete in college as a rower. Crew isn’t a common sport. How did you get involved with it?
BD: We had to read a book called The Boys in the Boat in eighth grade about the American team that rowed at the 1936 Olympics [in Berlin, Germany]. It seemed like a cool sport, and it got stuck in the back of my head. When I decided to go to Loyola, I saw they had learning how to row camp the summer before my freshman year. I had never rowed before that. I learned the basics and what the sport was all about. Some of the coaches noticed that I was good at it, and they told me I should give it a shot.
M&G: What qualities do you need to succeed as a rower?
BD: Strong legs, strong back and strong arms. But most of your power comes from your legs. The physical demands on your body are great. It’s also mentally taxing. The 2,000-meter race takes anywhere from six to seven minutes. Around three minutes, there’s a wall. A lot of people can’t break through it. That’s where you have to be mentally strong. Even though your body is crying in pain, you have to tell yourself to fight through it.
M&G: Does swimming prepare you for the crew season?
BD: There is a similar flow. Both require strong technique. Swimming gives me a good aerobic base, but it definitely takes me a week or two to get my legs and back in shape to handle the training.
M&G: What are some other things you’re interested in?
BD: I want to go into mechanical engineering because I like to see how things work. I’m into drag racing and Formula One cars. It’s interesting to me how Formula One cars have so much power with such tiny engines.
M&G: Why did you choose to row at Syracuse? Are you aware that the university’s women’s crew team is led by Loyola graduate Lucas McGee (Class of 1997)?
BD: When I started looking at Syracuse, a teammate of mine told me that Luke McGee went to Loyola. I haven’t had the chance to meet him. A reason I picked Syracuse was that it’s one of the top teams in the country, but it’s not one of the very best. I want to go there and help make them better. I see that as a challenge.