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Mark Philbrick, BYU Athletics
Jake Taylor, a junior at BYU by way of Honeyville, is competing in the NCAA swimming championships in Iowa City this weekend. He will compete in three races — the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, and the 200 individual medley.
I have been more focused going into every meet. Last year was disappointing and I used it as motivation to help me work harder. —BYU's Jake Taylor

As a boy, Jake Taylor excelled at many of the traditional (land-based) youth sports, but there was always something about the water and swimming that drew him to the pool.

He started training as a competitive swimmer at the age of 8, and even when coaches would tell him to take time off, he couldn’t stay away from the water. When he served an LDS Church mission and had to go two years without swimming, it was almost torture in the final months, and then the real work began: The comeback.

Taylor, a junior from BYU by way of Honeyville, is competing in the NCAA swimming championships in Iowa City this weekend. He will compete in three races: the 100- and 200-meter backstroke and the 200 individual medley. He is ranked in the first two races — sixth and 11th, respectively.

“This has been a year of work,” says Taylor.

A year ago, Taylor wondered if he would ever return to the form he showed before his mission. After returning to BYU in 2013, he resumed training but not the winning and the form that made him a star as a freshman. He was losing races and his times were slower.

“I knew coming back would be a hard and slow process,” he says. “The problem was I was used to winning all the time. I was used to being the go-to man.”

Taylor had dominated the pool almost the moment he took up the sport. The sixth of 10 children, he was good at baseball, soccer and basketball — a sport he seemed suited for, given his height (now 6-foot-4). Then he discovered the pool. His parents swam regularly for exercise; Taylor joined them in the pool just to play in the water, but in the process demonstrated a penchant for swimming. He joined a swim club in Brigham City and threw himself into training year-round.

When his club coach, Yolanda Bates, moved to Logan to coach Mountain Crest High and the local club team, Taylor followed. For a decade, he commuted from Honeyville to Logan several days a week — a 45-minute drive — to train with the Cache Valley Marlins swim team. Later, after he enrolled at Mountain Crest, he woke up at 4 a.m. to make the 6 a.m. practice before school. If training sessions were held after school, he wouldn’t return home until 6 or 7. If there was fog or snow, then it was 7:30 or 8.

“It was always very foggy in the evenings; we’d have to drive 20 miles per hour,” says Taylor.

He collected seven state championships for Mountain Crest, 14 All-America certificates, four state records, two Utah Swimmer-of-the-Year awards, and scholarship offers from Indiana, Yale, Air Force, Stanford and BYU. He also took time off to place second in the 800-meter run at the state track and field championships to end his prep career.

As a freshman at BYU, Taylor won four conference championships and finished 20th in the 200 backstroke at the NCAA championships. It was a sensational start, but then he took the next two years off to serve a church mission in El Salvador and Belize. Because of mission rules, he couldn’t swim for two years. The longest he had ever been away from a pool during the previous 11 years had been a week or two. The closest he got to a pool on his mission was the baptismal font.

“I loved swimming,” he says. “It’s something I did all year long. My coaches would tell me to take August off, but a week later I was back in the water. Then I took two years off. It was nice at first and I was distracted with the work, but toward the end I started getting the ache and the itch — I gotta get back in the pool.”

He gained 30 pounds on his mission. It wasn’t bad weight — he had simply matured. Even after he whipped himself back into shape, he shed only 10 pounds. But when he began losing races, his confidence suffered.

“A little doubt began creeping in,” he recalls. “I was bigger, maybe too big. I began to think maybe it’s not God’s plan for me to be a good swimmer.”

He made a breakthrough at the end of his sophomore year when, after a season of mediocre times, he set personal records in all three races and missed qualifying for nationals by .01 of a second.

“I was shocked, but more of it was relief that I still had it and was still progressing,” he says. “I decided my junior year would be better.”

He stepped up his training and watched his diet and sleep habits with the help of his wife, Amanda, a nurse whom he credits for helping his efforts. “She makes sure my nutrition is good and that I get good sleep,” he says. “She has helped me reach my limits.”

Taylor won 18 races this season and put an exclamation point on his comeback by winning the 100 and 200 backstroke races at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championships, where he set one meet record and two school records and was named Swimmer of the Meet.

“I have been more focused going into every meet,” he says. “Last year was disappointing and I used it as motivation to help me work harder.”

He hopes for more good things in the national championships.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com