By Christa Salerno, Assistant Sports Information Director
As soon as Florida State sophomore Max McCusker touched the wall in the bonus final 50 free at the 2020 ACC Championships, he knew he had made a big mistake.
With instant regret, he turned and saw his time: 19.75 seconds, good for 21st place.
Before heading to the warm down pool, McCusker walked up to head coach Neal Studd and was asked, “Why didn’t you use your underwaters?”
Studd was referring to dolphin kicking under water for 15 yards off the start and turns – a trend started by Olympic star Michael Phelps and since adopted by several top swimmers.
McCusker answered, “Yeah, I’m going to do it if I’m on the relay.”
In less than 45 minutes, the Seminoles would be behind the blocks to defend their 200 free relay ACC title. But based on their results in the 50 free, their chances for back-to-back golds seemed slim.
Studd had a decision to make. He had four relay spots for six swimmers, and McCusker’s 50 free time was the slowest.
But, the 200 free relay is not just about blazing speed. It requires strategy.
There’s no margin for error.
Sometimes the plan is simple: just use the fastest four swimmers.
But in this case, Studd called upon the guy that had the most left in the tank and biggest adjustment to make.
And then he gave McCusker the toughest job, as the team’s anchor.
Behind the blocks awaiting their heat, the four guys hyped each other up. They had been through this relay before, at the Georgia Tech Invite, and had already qualified for NCAA Championships.
But this race, and the chance at back-to-back titles, just meant more.
Working out of lane four, freshman Peter Varjasi – straight from winning the bronze medal in the 50 free – stepped on the blocks to lead off, hoping to utilize his speed to get ahead of the chop.
Out of the gate, the German did his job then made way for senior Griffin Alaniz.
As Alaniz took off on his leg, it became clear that there was a three-way race for gold between FSU, Louisville and NC State.
Sophomore Jakub Ksiazek was the third swimmer in the water – the only returning member from the 2019 ACC-winning relay that took fifth at NCAAs. But as he approached the wall, Louisville had taken a noticeable lead.
The key part of FSU’s strategy was about to go to work.
McCusker, off a near perfect relay exchange – 0.09 reaction to be exact – put what he does best to use.
This time, he stayed underwater for 15 yards, quickly caught the race leader and headed into the turn in a shoulder-to-shoulder tie.
Off the wall, again, McCusker went to those underwaters. He learned his lesson and trusted the fastest part of his race is kicking below the surface, while his competition went above.
“Defending champions, you don’t want to take anything away from them. Look at this!” the legendary color analyst Rowdy Gaines yelled on the race broadcast.
McCusker’s mind went blank as he pulled the Noles ahead in the closing yards.
“Here comes Florida State! Max McCusker. He’s got it!”
Back-to-back 200 free relay champs.
McCusker celebrated and gave his teammates a few hearty high-fives before looking back at the scoreboard at the Greensboro Aquatic Center.
Next to lane four and FSU’s winning time of 1:16.69, he saw his split time.
His teammates and coaches on the side of the pool were going nuts.
“There’s nothing better than watching a kid make an adjustment and go out there and execute,” Studd said.
Still in the water, McCusker glanced at his buddies with a look of disbelief before giving a wink to the TV camera nearby.
McCusker grew up in Essex, England, just outside of London, in a family of five.
As a two-year-old, he was introduced to swim lessons by his mother, Lisa, who was an accomplished English swimmer. He eventually joined a small local swimming club and started competing.
In no time, he was winning races at counties. Then regional titles. By the time he was 13, he was competitive on the national level.
McCusker wanted to continue improving and, at this point, had outgrown any swim clubs in the area.
Swimming wasn’t especially popular in the UK, with only a handful of successful teams in England . McCusker’s family knew that if he wanted to achieve big things, leaving Essex and joining one of those programs was the way to go.
So they packed up and moved 150 miles west to Glastonbury, where Max would attend and swim for the Millfield School in hopes of eventually earning a collegiate swimming scholarship in the United States.
McCusker eventually became a team captain and, when it came time to go through the recruiting process, didn’t have much luck with scholarship offers. Or with finding a program where he felt he could contribute.
“It was hard trying to find a university for me,” McCusker said. “Because I wasn’t the best swimmer and it wasn’t like I was going to ease into one of the top schools in America. I was looking a lot and had a couple of calls. I didn’t really know where to go.
“At this point it was late February and I thought that maybe I should just pack up swimming and go to uni in England.”
With his future in doubt, McCusker got some great news.
His coach, Euan Dale, had messaged a guy he had met at a coaching convention. A fellow Brit at that.
“I asked him who it was,” McCusker recalled, “and he said, ‘Neal Studd. The Florida State coach.’”
McCusker then remembered an older teammate who had gone from the UK to the United States. One who had won three ACC titles and made All-America teams.
It was Rob Holderness, the English native who made All-ACC in each of his four years as a Seminole (2008-12).
Following his graduation from FSU, Holderness continued to compete for Wales. He and McCusker crossed paths at his final year Millfield. Holderness shared some of his experiences in Tallahassee, those came under a different head coach, and since then, FSU had gone through two coaching changes.
Still, with a deadline approaching and his swimming career in need of a new path, McCusker decided to make the jump.
“I was out of options and I figured I would just go with it,” McCusker said. “He’s English as well. My coach knew him.”
It was also that last year McCusker learned that six swimmers from Millfield had previously made the trek across the pond to compete for Florida State:
Ed Denton, a four-time ACC champion and 15-time medalist, that also was a part of honorable mention relays at NCAAs from 2004-09. Holderness and his training mate Matt Shead, who also won three ACC medals between 2007-11. Ian Powell (2004-08) also contributed four ACC medals during his career.
The six swimmers combined for 30 ACC medals.
Dale, the Millfield coach, even had a stint in Tallahassee.
It was late March when McCusker took a recruiting trip and whatever reservations he had before about Florida State and Tallahassee faded.
“Oh yeah, I’m going to go here,” McCusker remembered thinking. “It was good fun. I knew I needed to come to FSU.”
First Moments at FSU
McCusker arrived at Florida State as a swimmer with tremendous event range.
He had experience competing in every freestyle event. He swam the 100 and 200 fly and did backstroke, too.
Really, he was the kind of swimmer that, if he was asked to swim any event, he’d do it.
“I didn’t specialize in anything when I was being recruited because I thought would help me a lot,” McCusker said. “I did all of the sprints, I did all of the long distances. I could do most events and I thought maybe I’d specialize once I got to school.”
At first, he geared toward specializing in the 200 and 500 free along with the 200 fly because the team needed middle distance swimmers and he could do it.
“On my recruiting trip, my dad was with me and he thought I’d do better swimming the longer races for some reason,” McCusker said. “I was kind of like ‘Shhhhh.’ Neal had said that FSU needed help in the 200 and 500 free and 200 fly. And I was just thankful he brought me here, and I didn’t care what I was going to swim. I’d do anything.”
“Max was a guy we were excited about,” Studd added. “The coaches at Millfield had tried a couple of different things with him. He came in and could do a lot of stuff. You’d like them to come in with a good base and a wide range and try and figure out where they could improve.”
Throughout the season, McCusker swam wherever needed. When the time came, he actually had no idea what events he’d be racing in at his first ACCs, which is surprisingly common for versatile swimmers.
Studd’s sprint group was loaded with seniors that included Kanoa Kaleoaloha and Will Pisani, who each brought home individual ACC titles while spearheading the 200 free relay gold.
At his first taste of a big American meet, McCusker was called on to swim middle distance.
In his first ACC swim of his career, McCusker helped the Seminoles qualify for the NCAA Championships in the 800 free relay while shattering the school record at 6:18.35.
He’d only found that morning that he’d even be in the race.
“I swam better than I thought I would,” McCusker said. “The next day, my 500 was decent and since my 200 free in the relay was good, they put me in the individual instead of the 100 fly.”
McCusker swam a personal best in prelims of the 200 free (1:35.95), then touched in 20th place in the finals (1:36.32). It was the only race in which he contributed individual points.
Following his freshman year, McCusker was happy to learn that he’d be moving into FSU’s sprint group.
“We thought Max could be a really good fly for us,” said Studd, noting that graduation had left him with a few holes to fill on his sprint team.
“We thought he had the underwater kicking and he could turn that into his own spot. So there was a little bit of strategy involved.”
FSU was coming off major success in 2019, as three relays stood on the podium at the NCAA Championships – something the Seminoles hadn’t done since 1998.
With three seniors gone, it looked as if FSU would need to reload and start over. But with the addition of a few freshmen and McCusker’s transition, the Seminoles didn’t miss a beat. At the mid-season invite in November, all five of FSU’s relays were ranked within the top 16 in the nation.
“We focused on working the underwaters and power with Max,” Studd said. “It was that way with Griffin (Alaniz) when he made the move to the sprint group. It’s nice they have that distance background and sometimes you can push the speed and power stuff more and come out with a really good sprinter.”
Another thing about that group, like any elite competitors, they thrive on the friendly banter.
McCusker sees that the most with freshman Domen Demsar.
“Like rivals in a bar fight,” Demsar said. “It’s crazy to train with him. I love doing big sets with him. We always do the same strokes and we push each other to the maximum.”
“I’m usually the one creating the banter on the men’s side,” Studd added. “Normally, I’m trying to wind up Max and Domen in the 50 fly in practice. There’s a lot of cool rivalries in the group, which are fun. When I’m timing them I’ll say, ‘Max, pretty good. Just a tenth off Domen.’ And then the next one he’s two tenths faster. For the most part, we’ve got a good competitive group and we just try and have fun with it.”
In a group that had eight sprinters break the 20-second barrier in the 50 free – the second most in the nation behind Texas – McCusker was unsure whether he’d be on any relays.
“I was the sixth or seventh fastest sprinter in the group,” he said. “Stroke for stroke, there’s people who are way faster than me, but I knew my underwaters were my strength and it’s the best way of doing it.”
As the season went on, Studd saw McCusker grow into a role he knew he could play: That of a clutch performer.
At the Georgia Tech Invite, he stepped up to the plate and anchored the 200 free relay, helping the Noles achieve their primary goal of qualifying for NCAAs.
Studd knew McCusker could be that guy again at ACCs, and, despite being the sixth-fastest swimmer in the 50 free at finals, he knew McCusker had more to give.
“He had it in him,” Studd said. “Sometimes, they all need their confidence boosted. But when everyone is telling you, ‘You can be that guy,’ it makes it a lot easier.
“Now that he’s done that, he’ll never go back.”
He also made the adjustments he needed to make in order to win that race. And with it all on the line, McCusker was at his best for his teammates.
“It all came down to that moment,” he said. “It was the first time I knew. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I got on the block and I knew I was going to win this race. There was no doubt. We all were pretty confident and we were going to win. And really, I didn’t care about my split, I was just happy we won.”
Individually, McCusker finished ninth in the 100 fly behind a personal best of 45.90 – a time that qualified him for NCAAs. He also won the bonus heat of the 100 free with a career best (43.08). Even still, he learned many lessons about himself.
“My first year, I felt that these people were way better than me. I kind of felt like a young kid at a meet,” he said. “This year, I went in and felt like I could medal.”
Again, McCusker was at his best on relays, anchoring the Noles to bronze in the 400 free relay while swimming the fly legs of the 200 and 400 medleys for silver.
The Seminoles had shifted focus to the NCAA meet – a meet they entered with a chance at a top-10 finish – in the middle of training, Studd received a call to inform him the meet was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some got out of the pool, while others continued to practice.
In McCusker’s case, the Irish Olympic Trials were set to take place days following the Men’s NCAA Championships and had not yet been canceled.
Had it not been for the pandemic, McCusker could have potentially competed in four relays, both in prelims and finals, and possibly three individual races at NCAAs before embarking on an international flight to Ireland where he would try to make an Olympic team. (McCusker has dual citizenship thanks to his Irish father, Kevin.)
It would have been a tall task, but Ireland had an open spots on the 4×200 relay team and McCusker liked his chances.
"He had it in him. Sometimes, they all need their confidence boosted. But when everyone is telling you, ‘You can be that guy,’ it makes it a lot easier. Now that he’s done that, he’ll never go back."Florida State Head Coach Neal Studd
McCusker made it back to England and found out that his Florida State teammates chose him to be a captain for the 2020-21 season, along with seniors Paxton Rhoads and Joshua Davidson.
He felt surprised, because he never really saw himself as a leader.
But McCusker’s actions throughout his entire swimming career have proven he’d be a worthy choice, and a captain that can take on any role for the team.
He unselfishly swims the races that are needed for the team. He steps up and delivers in key moments.
But, more importantly, he’s there for his teammates with honesty. Although he leads by his actions, McCusker is not afraid to tell the truth and motivate his fellow swimmers in a positive way.
“It’s a combination of things with Max,” Studd said. “People love that he’s a clutch performer. I think they love that he comes and he works hard and he doesn’t complain and he gets the job done every day. I think there’s a group on the team that really resonates well with him in terms of (he’s a) fairly quiet guy and sort of no nonsense.”
At ACCs, McCusker recalls having a few chats with some of his teammates about their performances.
“Some guys were getting a little bit down, so I had a chat with the boys,” McCusker said. “I remember telling them to not get so in your head about it. I remember last year, I was absolutely dog at ACCs. I was pretty terrible. But it doesn’t matter, you’re a freshman. You’re learning all of the time.”
His training mate, Demsar, knew from those chats that McCusker could be a great leader.
“I was stressed out about it since it was my first bigger meet in the US,” Demsar added. “I had a lot going on and I realized where I was and my nerves were going crazy. He told me not to worry. He told me that even though I didn’t swim how I expected to that it was my freshman year, and it really meant a lot to me.”
He also sets a great example in the classroom, having earned a nod to the 2020 All-ACC academic team, while helping the men boast team GPAs of 3.41 (Fall 2019) and 3.63 (Spring 2020) this season.
Although McCusker is back home in England, he can’t wait to get back to the sunshine, and be with his mates in Tallahassee.
After all, they have a lot to look forward to.
The Seminoles will return most of their ACC production and NCAA qualifiers, their MVP, Varjasi, and their diving MVP, Davidson. Three of the four relay swimmers from all five of FSU’s ACC medal-winning relays will be back.
And with Captain Clutch on your team, anything is possible.
"I think he could be whichever type of leader that he wants to be, since I know there’s a vocal part inside of him that may not come out all of the time. There’s the silent part – working hard all of the time, grinding in the weight room. I think whatever role he needs to be on a given day, he’ll be able to fulfill as a leader for our team.”John Yambor-Maul