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Green’s Zupan Learns That Rank Has Its Privileges

  • Dartmouth swimmer Nejc Zupan. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)

    Dartmouth swimmer Nejc Zupan. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)

  • Dartmouth swimmer Nejc Zupan in an undated photograph. (Dartmouth College photograph)

    Dartmouth swimmer Nejc Zupan in an undated photograph. (Dartmouth College photograph)

  • Dartmouth swimmer Nejc Zupan. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)
  • Dartmouth swimmer Nejc Zupan in an undated photograph. (Dartmouth College photograph)

Hanover — Being the athletic sort, Nejc Zupan signed up for his freshman trip at Dartmouth College a rigorous hiking expedition, a traditional outdoor orientation program that challenges and welcomes new undergraduates to the college on the hill.

Being from Slovenia, however, Zupan and his luggage had to negotiate various airports and more than 4,000 miles to reach Hanover.

Zupan made it. His possessions did not.

“I had enough clothing to just get by, but I bought the rest of it,’’ laughed the 21-year-old, now a star swimmer for the Big Green and a junior who’s headed to the NCAA championships in Indianapolis later this month. “I had socks with a D on them and boxer shorts with a D on them and shirts with a D on them. People must have looked at me and thought, ‘Wow, this guy is really set on Dartmouth.’ ’’

Zupan’s greenery was fitting, however, because when the college’s outing club saw that the newcomer had no hiking gear, they reassigned him to a new trip: organic gardening. So much for scaling the White Mountains and cooking over a campfire. Zupan spent four days learning about lettuce and pesticide-free soil.

“I actually met a lot of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, people with different interests,’’ said Zupan, whose first name is pronounced Nates. “It was a great introduction to Dartmouth and what it’s like.”

Zupan has displayed similar adaptability in the water, where he arrived in Hanover as a long-distance specialist before switching to shorter races because of a skiing injury suffered little more than a year ago. Regardless of what he’s doing and where he’s doing it, Zupan displays signature intensity.

“He came in with an incredible work ethic and did even better than we had hoped,’’ said 19th-year Dartmouth coach Jim Wilson. “He took the whole team on his back as a freshman, and he did it by example.

“We have more talented individuals on the team, but Nejc never lets a day go by without working hard. During a six- or seven-month season, that’s really hard to do. You get in the water with him, and he’ll just kick your butt.”

Zupan is also a standout student who’s majoring in mathematics and economics, belongs to a fraternity and conducts research with one of his professors. He developed his drive as the son of a computer software engineer and a nurse in Kamnik, a northern suburb of Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, and a town with a population of roughly 10,000. Slovenia, once part of communist Yugoslavia, achieved independence in 1991.

After joining a local sports club at age 9 and excelling at swimming, Zupan moved on to Ljubljana to find stiffer competition and attend an international school, where many of his classmates hailed from other countries, and he improved his English. After watching older swimmers parlay success into slots on U.S. collegiate rosters, Zupan began hunting for American colleges and universities that combined top-notch liberal-arts education and also had swimming teams.

Shortly before, Dartmouth had extended its need-blind financial aid program to international students, so Zupan’s timing was fortuitous. After sending the Big Green swimming office an email, he was impressed by the correspondence that ensued with Dartmouth assistant coach Jenn Verser. He also liked the look of the school and its educational offerings from what he could see on the Internet. He successfully applied without ever visiting Hanover.

“Dartmouth just stuck out online, and the fact that it’s focused on undergraduate teaching was a huge plus,’’ said Zupan, adding that he had recruiting discussions with all of the Ivy League’s swim programs, as well as Notre Dame. “From my conversations with the coaches, it was apparent they were serious and dedicated, and this seemed like a great place to join.”

Landing Zupan was almost unbelievable for Dartmouth, where the men’s swimming team hadn’t beaten an Ivy opponent head-to-head in six seasons at the time he was considering applying. The Big Green hasn’t had a winning league season since the 1981-82 campaign, and its Ivy losing streak would extend to 53 consecutive dual meets before being snapped during Zupan’s freshman year.

During the last four years, Dartmouth’s finishes at the Ivy championships have progressed from eighth to seventh to fifth, which is the best it’s ever done in the competition and where it’s wound up the last two years. This past weekend, Zupan became the Big Green’s first male or female swimmer of the meet at the Ivy championships, a result of his winning league titles in the 200 breaststroke and the 200 and 400 individual medley races. The breaststroke title was his third consecutive crown, the first time a Dartmouth swimmer has earned that many individual victories.

“Our team is stronger than it’s been in years,’’ said senior captain Zack Doherty. “Our rise towards the top has been incredible, and Nejc’s dedication and focus has been huge in getting (teammates) to step up and recognize we can swim with Princeton and Harvard in some events.”

Zupan was Dartmouth’s most valuable swimmer each of his first two seasons, but they were different experiences for him. As a freshman, he won the 1,000- and 1,650-meter freestyle races at the Ivy championships, setting a school record and winning the Big Green’s first league title in the latter. During holiday break in December 2011, however, he attempted a 360-degree spin as he skied off a jump.

“It did not go well,’’ Zupan recalled with a chuckle. “Both my skis went flying away in the air and I thought, ‘Aw, this is going to hurt.’ I shattered the first knuckle on my thumb and was out for six weeks. All I could do in (swim) practice was wrap a plastic bag around the cast and kick with a bodyboard.”

The situation paid off, however, when Zupan discovered that his kicking work had dramatically improved his breaststroke form. His coaches steered him to that event, along with the 200- and 400-meter IM races. Although the sophomore returned for only the last month of the season, he won the 400 IM at the Ivy championships and set school records in the 200 breaststroke and 200 IM races. He was also part of two Big Green relay teams that set school records.

“It’s not normal that someone could go from distance events to the breaststroke and do so well,’’ Wilson said.

Last fall, with a few months of intense training in the breaststroke, Zupan flew to France the same day he finished finals. A few days later, he finished seventh in the event and broke the Slovenian record by five seconds at the European championships. That was followed by a return flight across the Atlantic and a dual meet at Brown against the host Bears and Princeton. There, he won the 200 breaststroke in 1 minutes, 53.87 seconds, a Dartmouth and Ivy record time that also qualified him for the NCAA championships.

The first Dartmouth swimmer to reach the nationals since Todd Taylor in 1980, Zupan will also make the Big Green’s first NCAA appearance since diver Toby Hayes in 1999. Competition in Indianapolis begins on March 28.

“Even though I had been studying and not focused on swimming that week, I was somehow able to get into perfect shape mentally,” Zupan said. “I had a really good feeling in the water, the best I had ever felt in the breaststroke. I hope I can get that feeling back for the NCAAs.”

Here’s hoping Zupan’s luggage makes the full trip with him this time.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.