Time Flys: A 10-year reunion with legendary swimmer Mark Dylla

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This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

You can take the young man out of Colorado, but you can’t take the Colorado out of the young man.

Early last month, like the rest of Broncos fans, Mark Dylla wanted to talk about Gary Kubiak leaving Denver as head coach. Never mind Dylla lives and works in the Atlanta area. The Broncos, as Coloradans know, can be both a national and global thing.

“They’re the team I’ve cheered for the most,” Dylla said. “I’ve always followed them. It’s hard to believe it has been almost 10 years since I’ve [lived] there.”

Believe it. Nearly a decade ago, the 2007 graduate of Heritage High School in Littleton completed arguably the greatest schoolboy swimming career on record. Dylla, now 28 years old, never lost an individual finals race, going 81-0 (including one tie in a Continental League final as an underclassmen). He also became only the second in-state male to win what is now the maximum eight individual titles over a four-year run. The sport was sanctioned in 1959.

Not too shabby for a Colorado native who was originally goaded by a 5-year-old girl across the street from his home who laughed at him and told him he couldn’t swim if his life depended on it, and she could. It was quickly followed by “nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah …” Next thing you know, Dylla’s mother put him into swimming lessons and the path to a stellar career on the local, national and international levels was cleared.

“I’m proud of it,” Dylla said about his Eagles career.

He should be, Eric Craven said. The longtime Cherry Creek High School girls coach and leader of the Colorado Aces Swim Club since the late 1970s said “if you look back at some of the individual state stars, they can’t [match] that accomplishment in the years they were in high school. And this isn’t something that just worked out. He didn’t just swim the [butterfly], the backstroke or the 500 [freestyle]. He swam everything and it was always against the best swimmers in their best events, and he still found a way to beat them.”

Tom Byorick, who has 20 years heading Heritage boys and girls, as well as serving as a longtime assistant for Aces, asked: “The best? He doesn’t have any state records now, but relative to where other people were, he was the most dominant male. I can’t think of anybody else more well-rounded. And he didn’t do it in the same event each year.”

No, Dylla was a complete thrilla, handling every stroke.

Beginning in 2004 as an Eagles freshman, Dylla was champion in the 100-yard butterfly and 500 freestyle; then the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley; then the 100 butterfly and 500 freestyle; and, finally, the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke. The total tied him with Wally Hultin, who attended Denver East and George Washington and from 1959-61 won two titles as a sophomore, four as a junior and two more as a senior. In those days, individuals could compete in more than two individual events; it has since been changed to a maximum of two individual events and two relays per state meet.

How good was Dylla? He also…

..finished with the top times in the 100 butterfly (48.23 seconds); 100 backstroke (48.75) and 500 freestyle (4:28.42) among 41 Colorado marks.

…turned in 24 All-America times.

…qualified for the Olympic Trials in four events.

…was the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association champion in 2004-05 for the 100 butterfly and in 2005-06 for the 500 freestyle.

…captained the 2006 National Junior Team.

And among Dylla’s “it” factors, which included terrific grades and character, he also had a keen sense of direction. While at a team function on Bow Mar Lake, Byorick lost his wedding band in the water. The coach had a distraught wife, so he rented an underwater metal detector. Dylla insisted on helping. Bored with sitting on the boat and despite chilly conditions, he got into the water and, Byorick said, came up with the ring in about 5 minutes.

“It was awesome,” Byorick said. “Like a scene out of a movie.”

Highly decorated former coach Maurice “Stringy” Ervin, who was on the job for an amazing 49 years and is in the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame, once called Dylla “probably the best to come out of the state.”

Ervin’s keen eye for talent as well as technique also correctly identified what may have been Dylla’s most-dominating aspect: “He’s so strong under the water.”

True. Dylla usually was the last one in his race to pop his head out of the water. And by that time, he usually had the lead. Standing at just 6-feet, which even a decade ago was shorter and unusual for a top-flight male swimmer, Dylla helped make up for it with considerable upper-body strength as well as a 6-foot-4 wingspan.

“It definitely didn’t hurt,” Dylla said of his reach, “and it would have been great to have a couple more inches of height. Swimming is a sport of big feet, big hands and a lanky-type of a build. I was built more similarly to a college football player. The wingspan helped. I don’t know if someone would have said, ‘He looks like a swimmer,’ but everyone comes in different builds.”

Said Craven: “The only thing was, if only Mark was as tall as his dad, who’s 6-foot-4 … to be as tall as his dad, and you take a second an inch down to a 1:52 (in the 200-meter butterfly), he’s in the same company with Michael Phelps, who happens to be 6-foot-4.”

Byorick called it “one of the things that made him. He never told me and I’m totally guessing, but I think he was really into proving people wrong. He had that work ethic to go with his talent.”

It was good enough to land a Dylla a scholarship to Georgia of the Southeastern Conference, which was ultra-competitive and powerful nationally. Four seasons in a row, he won the 200 fly and set SEC records, including topping the mark held by Florida’s Ryan Lochte. He was second in his first two seasons in the NCAA 200 fly, won as a junior, only to be disqualified because of an alleged illegal turn – even the eventual winner said Dylla easily won the race – and finally grabbed the title as a senior.

Dylla, who still owns several age-group records for Craven’s and Byoricks’ Aces, went on to the Olympic Trials in 2008 and ’12, finishing eighth and fifth, respectively, in the 200 fly, although just the top two in both finals advanced. Then he was done in the pool, having handled all of its ups and downs like the ripples and splashes that regularly run through water.

“I’m satisfied,” he said. “When I left the sport, I had been to every international competition there was outside of the Olympics. (It included finishing second to Phelps in the 2010 Pan Pacific Games as well as serving as captain of the U.S. Team in the World University Games in China.)

“Being a pro swimmer, there’s not much there. I needed a job to start my life. Nothing is guaranteed when you try to wait four more years. It was the right time to walk away. I’ve got goals for the rest of my life as well. For four years, they say you’re the guy, then a 15-year-old comes along.”

Today, Dylla continues to clean up. He works at Rubicon Global, which he says hopes to “change the way people look at waste and recycling, and how they value their recyclables and to change the ecosystem of how that market works.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, Goldman Sachs and Suez have invested. Rubicon’s accounts include handling all of Under Armour, 7-Eleven and Dollar General.

It’s reflective of Dylla’s staying power as well as openness.

“On top of everything, he’s just a good kid,” Craven said. “You could lock him up in a closet with a paper clip and he’d be entertained for hours.”

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