Rathgeber Takes Fifth at Pan Am Competition

First-place prelim time helps pace senior in Brazil-hosted games

Meghan T. Purdy

Rising senior Geoff Rathgeber, shown here in earlier action, took first place in his preliminary 200-meter individual medley meet, going on to finish in fifth place overall in the event.

The summer months regularly see Crimson athletes scattered across the globe; some push through tough workout regimens in Cambridge to prepare for the upcoming season, while others use the time to mend their bodies abroad after a grueling spring.

But for Geoff Rathgeber of the Harvard men’s swimming and diving team, this summer has offered a rather uncommon experience that was much more exciting than that of most of his fellow athletes: the opportunity to represent the United States at the Pan American Games, held July 16-22 in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.

Rathgeber’s foray in foreign waters was a strong one, as the rising senior finished fifth in the 200-meter individual medley. After arriving in Rio de Janiero in July with 46 other American athletes looking to compete against representatives from over 40 countries, Rathgeber started with a bang in his preliminary heat. Competing in cold rain and wind in an outdoor pool, he led the pack and shaved nearly two seconds off his personal best to finish in 2:01.81, the fastest time in the prelims. He also experienced a bit of anti-American sentiment, as the Brazilian fans—who continually packed the arenas—booed because a representative from the United States won.

Although he still notched very good times in the semifinals and finals the next day, Rathgeber couldn’t pull of a repeat performance of his scorching prelim time, which elevated his ranking to 14th in the world in the event. After finishing second in his semifinal heat, Rathgeber swam neck-and-neck with American teammate Robert Margalis—one of the top swimmers in the world—in the finals, but Margalis ultimately pulled away to finish second behind Thiago Pereira of Brazil. Pereira set pool and event records by clocking in at 1:57.79, while Rathgeber finished at 2:02.58.

“In the prelims, I felt really strong and smooth for the whole race—it felt amazing,” he said. “The next morning, it felt a little harder—like I forced my stroke. It was the same thing at finals; the guy next to me [Margalis] went out really fast, and I tried to catch up. I just died on last lap—I expended my energy too soon.”

In addition to the unfamiliar landscape and intense competition, the Rathgeber and others had to adjust to a different racing format. In college, races usually consist of a preliminary heat in the morning and a final in the evening, but the Pan Am Games add another level—the semifinals—to the event. As a result, the prelims occur in the evening, with the semis and finals occurring in the mornings of the following two days.

Although he didn’t end up at the top of the podium, Rathgeber said he appreciated the opportunity to swim against top notch swimmers and represent the U.S. on an international stage while learning about Brazilian culture. This was only the second international competition for the Crimson swimmer; he also swam at the Junior Nationals in Australia while in high school.

“It was really a great experience to compete,” Rathgeber said. “It was a little bit bittersweet because it might be the last time I will get to compete for the United States. But I learned a lot from being down there—it was my first time competing next to swimmers of this caliber.

“I’m not used to falling that far behind so early, so it helped me learn to swim differently, which will hopefully help this year at school and in the Olympic trials,” he said.

Rathgeber will now focus on preparing for the U.S. Nationals, which will occur in Indianapolis, Ind. from July 31 to Aug. 4. Crimson teammates Sam Wollner and David Guernsey will also be competing at the event.

—Staff writer Julie R.S. Fogarty can be reached at