Sam Iida hears the question from a startled passenger nearly every time he drives his car:
“What is that rolling around in your trunk?”
Iida — a Glenbrook South senior who collected his second and third career gold medals at the state swimming meet last month — usually squeezes a playful smile and states, “It’s my baseball bat. My glove is back there, too.”
The 5-foot-9, 167-pound Iida also enjoys displaying his competitiveness on a basketball court. One of his favorite escapes from the grind of training for a big meet is joining buddies for a pick-up game of hoops at a park.
He swims laps.
He swings aluminum.
He swishes shots.
“That bat,” the University of Arizona-bound swimmer says, “has been around forever in my car. There’s no more pop in it.”
The same can’t be said for Iida’s ability to swim. Nobody was more electric at the state meet at New Trier last month than Iida was, particularly in the 200-yard IM. In the preliminaries session on Feb. 24, his time of 1:47.27 supplanted the previous state record of 1:48.08, set by Normal Community West High School’s Jake Miller in 2014.
In the finals session on Feb. 25, Iida saw to it that his fresh state record matched the approximate lifespan of the mayfly from the order Ephemeroptera: one day.
Iida completed the race in only 1:46.02.
The runner-up in the event, Hersey junior Michael Petro, clocked a 1:50.12.
A four-plus second margin of victory in swimming is the equivalent of a 63-3 triumph in football, give or take a couple of extra points.
“That day was so exciting for Sam and everybody else involved with high school swimming in Illinois,” Glenbrook South swimming coach Keith MacDonald says. “To do what he did in the 200 IM, smashing the old record in the prelims, and then coming back the next day to set another 200 IM record before holding off his rival [Peoria Notre Dame junior Colton Paulson] to win the 500 freestyle, showed everybody how determined he was, how much he loves taking on challenges.
“Sam,” the coach adds, “finished off well. Fun meet.”
Iida had little time to savor his sensational swim in the 200 IM on Day 2 of the state meet. The Titan had also qualified to race for his second 500-freestyle state championship in three years. Last winter — as the reigning state champ in the 500 — Iida (4:26.95) finished runner-up to Paulson (4:25.87) in the grueling event.
In order to ensure some midseason sharpness for his star, MacDonald scheduled a midseason dual with Notre Dame High School in Peoria.
Paulson was waiting on Dec. 23.
Iida was energized.
The pair hit the water and proceeded to give onlookers a compelling preview to another state-meet encounter. One problem, as both neared the final wall of the 20-lap race: the scoreboard wasn’t working.
“Only one guy knew what are times were initially,” Iida recalls. “He saw them on a screen [at the scorer’s table].”
The one guy was amazed, and he reacted accordingly.
Iida’s time: 4:32.32.
Paulson’s time: 4:32.32.
Iida had traveled 175 miles to swim 500 yards and settle for a tie. But some good came out of the result.
“We wanted Sam to swim in a competitive race at that point in the season,” MacDonald says. “In seasons past, he’d had [Glenbrook South graduates] Jon Salomon [Class of ’15, now swimming at the University of Wisconsin] and Tommy Hagerty [’16, Boston University] to push him.
“That was exciting, watching Sam and Colton tie in Peoria,” the coach adds. “We couldn’t take anything for granted for the rest of the season.”
The highly anticipated 500-free rematch at the state meet last month had Iida lining up in Lane 3 and Paulson slotted in Lane 5 in the championship finals heat. In between the event’s two previous state champions was Highland Park High School senior Levy Nathan.
Iida’s plan was to set a swift tone, and he did just that, clocking a 49.7 in the first 100 yards.
“Colton didn’t see me [after 100 yards] because of our lane assignments,” Iida recounts. “It could have been a whole different race had he seen where I was at that point in the race.”
Iida maintained his strong pace throughout the remaining 400 yards and touched in 4:23.63. Paulson took the silver with a 4:24.64, and Nathan placed third with a 4:25.93.
“The pain I felt after that race was the most insane I had ever experienced,” Iida says. “My body was on fire.”
Iida also swam on two state relays on the final day of his decorated prep career, helping the 200 medley unit take seventh (1:33.41) and the 400 free crew finish eighth (3:08.36).
Iida’s career state-medal total: 13, including three golds. He helped the Titans’ 2014-15 squad place third at state, as he collected gold (500 free), silver (200 IM) and bronze (as a member of the 400 free relay).
Iida attended his first high school practice — as a fifth grader. His father, Glenview Titan Aquatic Club (GTAC) coach Steve Iida, had known MacDonald for years then. A young Sam Iida was a regular at the practices, eager to watch Titans train and race.
One of his highlights in 2012 was a trip to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, where he cheered for Olivia Smoliga, a junior at Glenbrook South at the time and one of Steve Iida’s star charges.
Steve and his son sat down for a pivotal talk in 2013.
“It was right around the time of a long-course meet, when my dad started talking about me and the 2016 Olympic Trials,” Sam says. “I laughed; I was 14 years old.”
But the laughter ceased when Iida swam faster than Trials cuts in the 200 IM and 400 IM in 2015.
With his memorable high school career behind him and a promising college career ahead him at the University of Arizona, Iida has “2020” vision now, as in hopes of qualifying to swim at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
He will be a junior in college then — a prime age for international-level swimmers.
“I know it won’t be easy,” Iida says of making Team USA. “It won’t come fast, and there will be a lot of people and obstacles in my way. It will take maximum effort, and I’ll work hard every day.”
Two days after the state meet at New Trier last month, Iida entered a classroom at school for his Honors Accounting class, taught by Titans girls basketball coach Steve Weissenstein.
“Sammy I!” an animated Weissenstein shouted, as the multiple state champion took his seat.
Weissenstein felt the other students in the class should see what Iida had accomplished in water. The lecture — perhaps on assets — would have to wait.
Sam Iida, school asset, was present.
Weissenstein treated the class to the video of Iida dominating the 200 IM race.
Nobody took notes.
It’s hard to do that when one is frozen in awe.