John Piersma

John Piersma

  • Year Inducted : 2016
  • Sport : swimming

About Inductee


He arrived in Ann Arbor in the late summer of 1993, a lanky 18-year-old freshman standing 6-foot-5 and weighing maybe 180 pounds, wringing wet. He came up from Alabama and spoke with a bit of a Southern accent. He was mostly quiet and serious, but sometimes hed flash an unexpected ear-to-ear grin. Naturally, his new teammates on the University of Michigan mens swimming team promptly dubbed him "Big Country." The nickname mightve been stereotypical coming from a group of young student-athletes who didnt yet know the tall newcomer. But theyd soon discover the truth: John Michael Piersma was going to fit in nicely at the Donald Canham Natatorium, home pool of a school that had won more national championships in swimming (17 at that time) than any other university in the country. Over the next four years, the big kid from Huntsville, Ala., emerged as one of the premier swimmers ever to wear the Maize and Blue. As a 4-time All-American, Piersma helped Michigan win its 18th national championship in 1995, was part of three Big Ten championships and helped set an American record the mens 400-meter freestyle relay, swam on the U.S. Olympic team in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and was named Big Ten Swimmer of the Year in 1997, capping a spectacular senior season in which he won the 100-, 200- and 800-yard freestyle relay. "John was the backbone of the team and his attitude carried us," said Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek. Those who had followed him as a youngster werent surprised by Piersmas collegiate success. They watched him dominate the competition from an early age, first in the Jones Valley Recreation League, then the Rocket City Summer League, then in the highly competitive Huntsville Swim Association and finally in the Southeastern Swimming organization. In 1992, the year before his graduation from Grissom High School, Piersma was the Swimmer of the Year in Southeastern Swimming and also a national champion in USA Swimming. "John was an incredibly intense competitor who embraced the big moments rather than shying away," said one of his former youth coaches, Brooke Pate. Although he says helping Michigan win the NCAA championship in 1995 while also helping set the American record in the 800 freestyle relay was "my most rewarding athletic achievement," he hastens to emphasize that being named to the U. S. Olympic swim team in 1996 was the pinnacle of his career. "Being part of a group working together for one goal greater than themselves was incredible and very special in 95," he said. "But without a doubt, its hard to say the Olympics is second to anything. Competing in the Olympic Games, representing your country against the rest of the world, is a crowning achievement for any athlete in any sport. Theres nothing like it." Piersma did not qualify for a medal in his two specialty events, the 200- and 400-meter freestyles, at the Atlanta Olympics. But he went out a winner in his final Olympic race, the 400-meter consolation finals, by blowing away an eight-man field with a time of 3:50.69, a whopping two seconds ahead of runner-up Sebastian Wiese of Germany. Afterward, Piersma said: "Im pretty ecstatic. I dont think I really got into a groove until tonight. When youre standing out there and 15,000 out of 16,000 are cheering for you, when 99 percent of the crowd is behind you, its really something special." Asked about not winning an individual medal, he said: "I dont even know how to answer. All I can say is, Ill have some great memories coming out of here, things thatll be with me for the rest of my life. How could anybody be disappointed with that?" Former Auburn University athlete Margaret Hoelzer, also a Grissom graduate, is the only other swimmer from Huntsville to ever participate in the Olympic Games. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she won three medals, two silvers and a bronze, for the U.S. swim team. Now 33, Hoelzer will be eligible to join Piersma in the Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame as soon as she reaches the age of 40. Piersma, eldest son of the late Huntsville physician John Piersma and his wife Mary, is now a doctor himself. An Internal Medicine Specialist at The Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, he focuses on preventive medicine and believes the patient-physician relationship is the cornerstone of quality care. Piersma and his wife Rachel, also a former swimmer at Michigan, have two children: Ella Jo, 11, a swimmer and volleyball player, and John, already a promising pianist at the age of 8.

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