Born: November 25, 1975
Thomas Peter Wilkens was born November 25, 1975 in Middletown. Tom got into competitive swimming at the Middletown Pool and Tennis Club, and continued at the Red Bank YMCA. He was not a natural athlete, nor did he possess any of the usual physical attributes that make a great swimmer. And it didn’t help that he was allergic to chlorine. Tom just set goals, focused on training and technique, and won races. He was crowned YMCA national champion three times.
Tom competed for Christian Brothers Academy in high school and was admitted to to Stanford University as a student, not on a swimming scholarship. He earned a reputation for being a hard-training pool rat, agreeing to reconstruct his technique under coach Skip Kenney in order to reach the next level. By his junior year, Tom was winning NCAA and national titles. As a senior he was team captain and led Stanford to the NCAA championship title in 1998.
Midway through his senior year, Tom began working with coach Dick Jochums at the Santa Clara Swim Club. After graduating, he entered the national spring championships on Long Island in 1998 and won two titles in one night, the 200-meter breaststroke and 400-meter individual medley, turning in one of the fastest medley times in history. The bigger surprise was the breaststroke title, as Tom did not specifically train for this race. As the 2000 Olympics approached, he staked his claim to being the world’s #1 400-meter individual medley swimmer.
Tom was named captain of the U.S. Olympic squad headed for Sydney. At the Olympic Trials, he made the team in the breaststroke and 200-meter individual medley. However, he finished a disappointing third in the 400 IM, which was his best event, and therefore would not be able to compete for the gold medal he so coveted.
At the Olympics, Tom failed to qualify for the finals in the breaststroke, but made the finals of the 200-meter individual medley—albeit with the 7th-best time. This did not bode well for a medal bid. He would have to either outswim Massimiliano Rosolino, who had been dominating this event, Olympic record holder Attila Czene, or U.S. teammate Tom Dolan. Dolan actually took a brief lead in the race, but Rosolino caught him to win the gold medal. Tom stayed close to the leaders, ending up with a surprise bronze. His third-place time of 2:00.9 was actually just a hair off the previous Olympic mark. Czene finished right behind Tom in this race, in fourth place.
A parade was held in Tom’s honor upon his return to New Jersey. In the crowd was a young swimmer from Fair Haven named Connor Jaeger. Seeing a kid from the next town over bring home Olympic hardware encouraged Jaeger to set his sights on the Summer Games. In 2016, he won a silver medal in the 1500 meters.
After the Olympics, Tom remained captain of the US swim team until 2003 and continued to swim at a world-class level. At the 2001 World Championships in Japan, he took silver in the 200-meter individual medley and bronze in the 400-meter IM. In 2002, he took home the gold medal in the 400 IM at the World Championships.
Tom returned to Middletown in 2004 and put his Political Science degree to work as a township committee member for several years. He also coaches at his old stomping ground, the Red Bank YMCA.