Jeff Jacobs: Villanova's Richard Nolan, of Wilton and Fairfield Prep, swims to gold and goes viral

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Fairfield Prep's Richard Nolan competes in the 100 breaststroke during the SCC championships in 2020.

Fairfield Prep’s Richard Nolan competes in the 100 breaststroke during the SCC championships in 2020.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

Richard Nolan climbed out of the pool Thursday night and onto the bulkhead for the award presentation at the Big East swimming and diving championships. Each place was designated to stand socially distanced for a photograph.

As he stepped off the bulkhead at SPIRE Institute in Ohio, the Villanova freshman from Wilton and Fairfield Prep was asked if he’d do a quick interview for the Big East broadcast. Nolan, who won the 200 individual medley, awaited the finish of the women’s 50 freestyle, put on the headset and looked into a camera affixed to a tripod.

This is life in the COVID world. And so is Nolan’s mask, one with the school’s easily identifiable logo. Fewer than 10 minutes after his own race, that V rose and fell with each of his heavy breaths.

“I never expected it, I was swimming along, got to the freestyle leg, saw the swimmers next to me and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got a shot at this,’” Nolan said early Saturday afternoon. “I just put my head down to the finish. Then I looked up.”

His teammates were shouting. The board showed he was first with a time of 1:49.51.

Richard Nolan said he loves swimming and putting a smile on people’s faces. In a 56-second interview with John Fanta of the Big East, he showed how much he loves it.

In the moment when they were chitchatting, Fanta had to say, “We’re not live yet. Save some for the interview.”

He was thinking about his family in the U.S. and Ireland cheering for him. His friends in Connecticut and at Villanova and, of course, his teammates.

“I just had this crazy feeling,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. All the energy just came out in the interview. I was so jacked up.”

When they did begin, Nolan waved to the camera. Clapping his hands, arms flapping, body rocking, he talked about how awesome it was just be at the facility. How awesome it was coming out with his team on six-hour, 30-minute bus ride. Cheering the whole way, egging each other on, arriving ready to go.

Fanta asked where he got his energy from, and that’s when the interview went from fun to a social media hit.

“Oh my gosh,” Nolan said. “My mom is going to be out there. My dad. My grandpa is out there watching right now. Hey, Grandpa! Hey, Auntie Amy.”

Nolan’s waving to everyone now. His words are bursting through the mask. This is what pure joy sounds like.

“I’m sure my sister’s watching. Hi, NoraNoël! Miss you. Love you guys. This great environment. Got to thank my mom, dad, my coaches, coaches get me excited, my teammates get me riled up.”

Fanta, whom UConn fans know well from Big East basketball broadcasts, tweeted that he’d met a lot of student-athletes, but none quite like Richard Nolan. Fanta called him an electric factory. Nolan got texts from Villanova and Connecticut. He got texts from coaches telling him: “Keep being you.”

“My parents were telling me my grandpa (Donald Brunner) was cheering so hard he almost fell out of his rocking chair,” Nolan said. “He’s in his nineties. He was excited as I was.”

On Friday night, Nolan captured his second Big East gold in the 400 IM, an event considered by many the most demanding in swimming. He had grabbed the lead with a strong breaststroke leg and won in 3:52.21. Both victories brought personal bests. Back at the camera, two of his teammates came up from behind and hugged him and they jumped around together. Seconds later, a third teammate grabbed him on the arm in celebration. His energy is infectious. Fanta called him the most exciting person on the planet.

“I’ve learned everything from my dad,” said Nolan, whose father, Gerard, was captain of the hurling team at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. “He told me to always keep a positive attitude. That’s something that goes so far in this sport and any sport indeed. Keeping a positive attitude, keeping your teammates happy and positive. Energy can transfer anywhere at any time. And you know what? Sometimes you’ve got to be the medium to transfer that energy.”

In a Hearst Connecticut article last year, Fairfield Prep coach Rick Hutchinson said Nolan brims with charisma and bursts with energy. Nolan said his teammates have taken to calling him “Big Rich.” That may change if they find out Hutchinson called him “Dr. Nolan, Ph.D in H20,” because he is so detailed and a high-IQ swimmer. He likes to go to YouTube videos to study elite swimmers’ arm positions, leg kicks, body positions.

“It’s like my coach back home, Ellen Johnston (of the Westport Weston Family YMCA Water Rats), said, ‘Be a student of the sport. Always learning. Always wanting to learn to improve.’”

Sometimes young people think they are either too cool or too cerebral to show emotion. This may be Nolan’s greatest beauty. He graduated summa cum laude from Fairfield Prep. He won USA Swimming Scholastic All-America honors. He is majoring in biochemistry at Villanova. He’s not too smart to have a blast.

He wakes up for morning practice, sometimes jogs to class, heads back to the pool for afternoon sessions, studies into the night. The next morning? He does it again. Sure, it’s a grind. Nolan?

“It keeps me busy. And out of trouble.”

He had no real expectations for the season. COVID restricted training in the pool and in the weight room. There were no meets in the fall semester and everything got shut down a few weeks before break.

“It was kinda devastating for us, but after break things got better COVID-wise, we trained more, had three dual meets,” Nolan said.

He had made All-CIAC and All-SWC teams in high school. He was the SCC Championship Swimmer of the Meet. Swimming with the Wilton Wahoos and Water Rats, he placed at several national meets. It was an experience in 2019, however, that he said gave him more confidence. He won the bronze medal in the 400 IM at the Irish Short Course National Championships.

“It was a different world, my (extended) family came over, there was a whole Nolan section,” said Richard, a dual citizen. “It gave me a different approach to championships.”

The grit runs in the family. NoraNoël, aka NoNo, swam with the Wahoos and Wilton High. She also developed into one of the better young golfers in the area. The golf captain at the University of Lynchburg, an arm injury kept her from working out. She asked if she could train with the swim team.

“My sister called me and said the coach went, ‘You can actually swim. We thought you were going to come and splash around,’” Richard said.

After not training or swimming competitively for four years, NoraNoël took third place in the 200 IM at the ODAC championships last month. Lynchburg won the conference title.

“We’re super proud of her,” Richard said.

In an email, it’s clear mom Eileen is super proud of both. She pointed out that Richard played baseball, basketball and golfed and made friends everywhere he went. You saw the result after the 400 IM.

“My legs felt like an Etch A Sketch,” Nolan said. “I could barely stand up during the interview. I was swaying back and forth. They say ‘Everything should be hurting after the 400 IM.’ I came out of the pool and I’m like, ‘My legs hurt much,’ and my coach is smiling, going, ‘That’s good. They’re supposed to.’

“All the hugs I got from my teammates felt so good, though. That’s what I love so much about Villanova. Everyone is there for you. At some of the (recruiting) visits, they put on the front, hey, our school is so amazing, this is how we act. The recruits leave and they change how they act. Villanova was totally up front. ‘What you see is what you get,’ Coach (Rick) Simpson likes to say. Everyone is supportive, talking with everyone, having a good time. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing in life, it’s going to be a chore.”

What you see you is what you get with Richard Nolan. As he prepared for his last race Saturday night, the 200 breaststroke, he had a goal: “Keep it smooth. Have fun. Leave it all in the pool.”

Yes, he went out and won gold for a third time. “Dream come true!” Nolan yelled to Fanta, and he started listing all the ’Nova winners and giving a shoutout to family in Ireland.; @jeffjacobs123