Matt Lowe's never been afraid to make a friend. As a nine year old he approached two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun Jordan at a swimming clinic in Minnesota. A few months later, Jordan made a visit to Minot to speak with the local swim club.
As an eighth grader, he sent a video to five-time gold medalist Tom Jager, seeking guidance on how to improve his stroke.
"He figured (Jager) was his buddy," said Tom Lowe, Matt's father.
Minot swimmer Matt Lowe looks up at his time following a race at the University of Texas. Lowe, now 26, is at his third U.S. Olympic Trials, which begins today in Omaha, Neb.
Matt Lowe first attended Jager's summer camps in Los Alamos, N.M., as a preteen and credits the now Washington State University coach with helping him get serious about the sport.
"It was a very quick process and for a guy like that to take the time out of his day to look at an eighth grader's video is very cool," Matt Lowe said.
Jager didn't hesitate in responding to Lowe's request, clearly remembering the gregarious camper.
"Just a great kid with a great attitude," Jager said last week from the same camp he still runs. "I don't think I've met anybody with a more affable work ethic."
Lowe, now 26, is four years removed from an accomplished career at the University of Texas, which preceded his second U.S. Olympic Trials berth.
His third bid at the Olympic Games begins today in Omaha, Neb., the same site of the 2008 trials that ended miserably for the breaststroker. Lowe was seeded third in the 100-meter event and didn't advance past the preliminary heat.
"I felt old," Lowe said. "I don't know if that was just because of coming off a college career or what it was, but, you know, during that meet and leading to it my body was hurtin'. It was run down and things we're fallin' apart, it felt like. But right now I feel good."
Time for a change
After three professional seasons spent in Austin with the Longhorn Aquatics club and similar late-year struggles, Lowe decided to train for these trials in Minot.
Confident in his maturity and knowledge after seven years under UT and former U.S. coach Eddie Reese, Lowe felt it time to look inward and rely more on his instincts.
He joined his aunt Kathy Aspaas - the owner of ASK Fitness and former trainer of Minot swimmer Dagny Knutson - in September. (Knutson qualified for the trials in seven events, but isn't swimming because of an undisclosed health issue.)
"I think the benefit of him doing it on his own is basically he can do it his way, more or less," Aspaas said. "So many times when you train with a team, you do what's best for the team and that may not be the way you'd like to train."
Lowe doesn't regret the decision as he's been able to finish the same number of workouts he did in Texas without having to wait for a handful of teammates in his lane. Aspaas works with him on finding the right weekly yardage and critiquing his stroke. She also coaches youth swimmers, but can focus on Lowe's training without the distraction of aiding 30 other national and world-class athletes - an average number for Reese's staff between the collegiate and professional swimmers in Austin.
"I think I probably would've regretted it more if I had not made a change and at least tried something different," Lowe said. "If I would've, who knows what my performances would've been if I had stayed down there and trained or trained somewhere else."
Lowe acknowledges that he misses his Texas teammates and the motivation one receives in a team environment, but said self-motivation has always been a strong suit.
"I think that's one reason why I've had some success in the sport is my expectations are above and beyond anybody else's for my own career," he said. "It's the second you have your best race, the next second later you're saying, 'Oh man, I could've gone faster, I could've done this.'
"The best athletes in the world are somewhat delusional - in a good way - and that's why they're successful."
Lowe's greatest success on the international level came in 2007 at the World University Games in Bangkok. The 400-medley relay team of Lowe, Nick Thoman, Matt Grevers and Adam Ritter took silver.
Lowe's rise to the international level began on childhood trips around the country as his two older sisters excelled in the sport. Tom and Cheryl Lowe owned a sailboat when their eldest, Jennifer, now 32, was born. The couple wanted the newborn comfortable around the water and began bringing her to the YMCA pool with them at six months.
Jennifer, who swam for Arizona State University, began swimming with the local club at six years old. Katie, 31, and a former swimmer at Northern Arizona, followed the trend as did Matt and his younger sister Lindsey, 25.
Cheryl Lowe remembers her only son enjoying the sport and being comfortable around coaches and athletes at the highest levels, including Shaun Jordan. It was imperative that Matt introduce his mother to Jordan following a clinic at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.
"So he drags me along and introduces me to Shaun and apparently he had already told Shaun he'd like him to talk to our club," Cheryl Lowe said, "so Shaun gave me one of his business cards and we took it to the board."
Soon after, the club ponied up the $5,000 fee for the gold medalist to speak in Minot.
"I saw these guys with gold medals and stories of being in the Olympics and all these guys had stories of failures," Matt Lowe said. "Being able to hear those stories, it allows you to just keep pushing and keep striving to be better each day you're in the water or working out."
Lowe was invited to swim with Minot High School as a seventh grader and held his own against seniors. He began practicing more frequently and Tom Lowe remembers his son started turning heads as a sophomore in the state meet.
"Pat McNally had just become the AD at Minot High; being at (Bishop) Ryan, he never saw much swimming," Tom Lowe said. "Matthew won the 100 (butterfly), 100 breast and was on the 200 free relay and 400 free relay. The 400 free relay, he had to make up like four or five seconds on the guy.
"He won two individual events and two relays and those are all in the last half of the meet, which you normally don't swim that, and they were all state records. Pat commented to me about that and said, 'I don't know that I've ever seen a performance like that.' "
Tweaking the 'Panther'
A seven-time All-American, Lowe had immediate success in Austin. He won the 100-meter breaststroke as a freshman in the Big 12 conference meet.
Lowe was nicknamed the "Panther" because of the quickness through his stroke, an attribute which has proven as destructive as it has beneficial. The frog-like kicking motion in breaststroke combined with Lowe's speed has led to a series of groin pulls.
"Sometimes those guys pull more muscles and tendons because they can move faster than the ligaments or tendons are ready to move," Reese said. "I think that was a big part of the problem."
Reese is confident that Lowe was on pace to break two-time gold medalist and former Longhorn Brendan Hansen's conference record in the 200-meter breaststroke Big 12 finals. The freshman Lowe pulled his groin during the race and finished eighth.
A similar incident happened the following year at the U.S. Nationals meet midway through the 100 breast finals. Lowe was second at the 50-meter turn and pulled his groin, finishing five hundredths of a second out of the two qualifying spots for the World Championships.
"He couldn't kick right the last 25," Reese said. "He would've been second if he could've finished that race."
If Lowe is bitter about his injuries or late-season struggles, he does a great job of not showing it. Through two separate 30-minute interviews more than a month apart, he barely acknowledged the injuries. He routinely works on flexibility and hasn't expressed frustration with groin pulls in training for the trials.
Chances at London
Numerous sources struggled to identify other professional swimmers - outside of Lowe and four-time gold medalist Jason Lezak - who swim without a team.
Lezak, a freestyler, has found success and Lowe is hoping his time alone in the pool will lead to a spot on the U.S. team (the top two in individual trials events advance).
Lowe's qualifying time in the 100-breaststroke is the 14th best and more than two seconds off Mark Gangloff's top time of 1:00.21. Lowe's personal best is 1:00.23, swam in 2009.
Lowe's qualifier in the 200 is 26th best and more than six seconds off former teammate Eric Shanteau's 2:10.09. Lowe's personal best is 2:12.48, also swam in 2009.
"He's just very, very good at if I want a certain time, he knows what to do," Aspaas said. "It's like he can dial in that time and swim it. And so, he's able to swim the paces that we're expecting. If we could put it all together at one time and have the perfect race, he's gonna be right in there."
Lowe spent time this year training at high altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz., and spent half his weeks in Minot and the other half in Bismarck, where Aspaas moved in March.
His last competitive meet was last month at the Mel Zajac Jr. International Swim Meet in Vancouver. The meet was mainly comprised of Canadian swimmers, but four of the top eight in the 100 breaststroke were former Olympians. Lowe took seventh in the shorter race (1:05.26) and ninth in the 200 (2:21.93).
His 100 time dropped by more than a half second a week later in a much smaller meet at Bismarck.
The times aren't likely to be that high in Omaha, where the 100 preliminary heats and semifinals are today. The final is Tuesday. The 200 preliminaries and semifinals are Thursday and the final Friday. The top eight make the finals.
Leading up to Vancouver, Lowe was at the height of his training, swimming between 5,500 and 6,000 meters a day for five to six days each week. During the taper, swimmers begin cutting that number each week in the final month or more before a major meet.
As the distance drops, swimmers expect their speed to increase and hope they've timed their taper correctly so their bodies are fastest at the meet.
Reese, Aspaas and Lowe agreed that for breaststrokers the timing is less predictable, making it the wild card stroke.
Lowe hopes he's the surprise name at the trials and doesn't mind the lower seed this time around.
"I might be down there a little ways, compared to the past, but my (Texas) assistant coach Kris Kubik always told me, 'Matt, when you're having tough season, it's in there somewhere, you just gotta find it.' "