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FROM THE PITCH TO THE POOL: How Jack Szaranek’s gruesome leg injury altered the course of his athletic career

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Jack Szaranek

Jack Szaranek was one of the top young soccer players in Dunfermline, Scotland, when a gruesome leg injury forced him to switch his focus to swimming. "If I hadn't broke my leg, then I may have never gotten the chance to come out here to the University of Florida and swim for one of the best teams in the nation," he said.

Jim Burgess / UAA Communications

Jack Szaranek breathed heavily as he sprinted down the field.

His soccer coach had just announced moments prior at a scrimmage that the next player to score a goal would win the match for his team.

Jack, now a swimmer at Florida, was 11 years old and living in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland, at the time.

After gaining possession of the ball, Jack flew toward the opposing team’s half of the pitch, mounting an aggressive counterattack. As he got closer and closer to the 18-yard box, his potential to score grew greater and greater.

There was only one obstacle left in his way: a boy on the opposing team frantically running toward him. In an effort to avoid him, Jack quickly changed direction and cut inside.

As he made the maneuver, he planted his left leg behind him and felt a pair of cleats penetrate his flesh.

Snap.

It was loud. So loud, in fact, that some of his teammates heard it from the other side field.

Jack collapsed to the ground and screamed in pain, writhing back and forth as players and coaches noticed his broken tibia. Some ran to help, while others looked away.

It was too gruesome for them to stomach.

Jack’s father, John, heard something had happened to his son and rushed to the scene. He’d played soccer in his youth and suffered a broken leg on three different occasions. When he saw the look of agony on Jack’s face, he didn’t have to think twice.

He knew what the boy’s slide tackle had just done to his son’s body.

What he didn’t know in that moment, however, was how drastically the injury would change Jack’s life.

It stripped away his dream of becoming a professional soccer player and forced him to focus entirely on swimming. It led him to a path of record-breaking times, olympic aspirations and the opportunity to compete for one of the most successful programs in the NCAA, the Florida Gators.

From the moment his leg snapped, Jack Szaranek was in hot water. He just didn’t know how well he’d learn to thrive in it.

Shifting Focus

Jack wasn’t initially deterred from continuing to play soccer after his injury. As one of the top young prospects in his age group, he hated the idea of walking away from his passion.

So after months of rehabbing his leg, he returned to the field hoping to pick up where he’d left off.

But after playing for another year and half, a harsh reality began to sink in. He wasn’t the same player he used to be.

“I couldn’t run as fast and wasn’t as physical,” he said, “which were the two main aspects of my game.”

Jack had previously been offered a spot to play for the developmental team of Dunfermline’s local club, Dunfermline F.C. But once he broke his leg, those dreams died.

He knew he’d lost a step that he’d never get back, and after deliberating for several months, he turned his attention to another sport, one that had originally brought his family together: swimming.

John and Wendy Szaranek first met at a swim meet when they were teenagers. The sport always held a special place in their hearts, and once Jack and his brother, Mark, were old enough to get in the water, their parents signed them up for the local swimming club.

The two boys swam and played soccer throughout their childhood, with the pool always taking a backseat to the pitch. But after Jack quit soccer, he and his brother started training full time under their father at the Carnegie Swimming Club, one of the oldest swimming facilities in Great Britain.

The more and more they trained, it soon became evident Jack had made the right decision. After years of wanting to play professional soccer, swimming was where he’d belonged all along.

Testing the Waters

After training rigorously under his father for the next five years, Jack quickly ascended to the top of European youth swimming.

In 2014, he won three medals at the British Youth Games and won the 50-meter freestyle at the Scottish Team Championships. His success in Scotland eventually earned him a spot on the Scottish youth development team for the Olympic Games.

Mark developed into a solid swimmer as well, and being the older brother, was set to choose which college he wanted to swim for first. Although Jack was younger, the two brothers had a rule when it came to going to college.

“It was kind of an understanding we had that we wanted to go somewhere together,” Mark said. “Who were the coaches? Is this somewhere we wanted to live for the next four years?”

There were a number of options. There was Michigan, which won the national title the same year the family began searching. There was Virginia Tech, where current UF swimmer Jan Switkowski won an ACC Championship in the 500 freestyle prior to his transfer to Gainesville. There was Auburn, which had 18 swimmers at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. But in the end, one school stood above the rest. Florida, which had just clinched its 35th SEC championship in team history, won the Szaranek brothers over with its staff led by head coach Gregg Troy and its reputation for developing talent such as Ryan Lochte.

And so, after Mark committed to UF, Jack soon followed him. One year apart, the brothers moved to the United States to compete for one of the nation’s most prestigious swimming programs.

Orange and Blue

In Scotland, Jack was one of the best young swimmers in the country. Once he got to the U.S., however, the level of competition was noticeably stronger.

“I left Scotland being right at the top of the game,” he said. “I come here and everyone is good. You really need to step up your game when you come (to the U.S.).”

Jack redshirted his first season with the Gators in 2015-16. In first year officially competing at the college level in 2016-17, he posted three career-best times at the NCAA Last Chance Meet in the 50-meter (20.50), 100-meter (45.82) and 200-meter (1:40.14) freestyle events. Mark, now a senior, has cemented his own legacy with 14 All-American honors and an NCAA championship in the 200 IM at the beginning of 2017.

“We’re grateful for the support and the help we get from the coaches,” his father said. “You really rely on the coaches and staff and that whole support network to do what they do.”

Now a redshirt sophomore, Jack is looking to have a successful college career and earn an eventual Olympic bid.

“If I hadn't broke my leg,” he said, “then I may never have gotten the chance to come out here to the University of Florida and swim for one of the best teams in the nation.”

Follow River on Twitter @riverhwells and contact him at [email protected].

River Wells is a sports writer for the Alligator and covers the University of Florida women’s tennis team. He has previously covered UF swimming and diving. He has worked at the paper since Fall 2017.