Prep boys swimming: Minnesota-bound Grant Wodny pushes Duluth teammates to excel

The All-American swimmer leads the area in every individual swimming category except the 100-yard breaststroke.

swimmers stand in pool
Duluth swimmers Leif Ziring, from left, Landon West, Erik Oase, Travis Elling, Grant Wodny and Joey Zelen stand in the pool at Ordean East Middle School on Thursday in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — To see Duluth’s Grant Wodny at the top of the local leaderboard of times in a variety of events isn’t surprising.

Wodny is the reigning Minnesota Class AA champion in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle — the first individual state titles for a Duluth swimmer since Ronald Onsgard won the 50 free in 1962.

His winning times of 1 minute, 38.73 seconds in the 200 and 4:29.19 in the 500 were both program records and were among the top 100 times in the U.S. last season, making Wodny an All-American in each event .

This season, Wodny leads the area in seven of eight individual events, but a look further down the lists shows that not only does Wodny dominate the list, Duluth swimmers are typically right behind him on the list.

Prep swimmer at practice at school swimming pool facility
Grant Wodny swims the freestyle during a practice on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, at Ordean East Middle School in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Junior Travis Elling is second to Wodny in the 200 individual medley and 500 freestyle. Elling’s time in the 200 freestyle is third, with Duluth freshman Joey Zelen in fifth.


“Grant is definitely a good swimmer and he’s pushing the rest of us as well,” Elling said. “He tried really hard in practice and that gets the rest of us to try really hard to keep up with him — we don’t, but we try. He sets a really good example for us to try and be faster and he lets us know that it’s possible to get faster.”

‘I do what Grant does’

Wodny has been among the dominant swimmers in the area for several years, but it’s not just Zelen and Elling who are stepping up.

Landon West is third in the 100 butterfly, Leif Ziring is also third in the 100 backstroke and Erik Oase is third in the breaststroke — the only individual event Wodny doesn’t lead.

Zelen is also top five in the area in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle and looks to Wodny’s “work ethic” as something to be emulated. Even after an early morning practice, a weight room workout and school and other swimmers aren’t excited about more work in the afternoon, Wodny has a “Let’s get it done” attitude, Zelen said.

“It’s awesome that I’m able to swim in the same lane as him in practice,” Zelen said. “He really pushes me sometimes, and even though he’s way faster than me … I do what Grant does, I follow him around. I don’t know if I’m annoying sometimes, but he’s the big guy — I look up to him.”

While Zelen may be concerned about “annoying” Wodny, now a Minnesota recruit, had his own mentors on the Duluth team. Wodny spent a few years on the team with current St. Thomas swimmer Joe Rudd and was an eighth grader when Ryan Zelen, Joey Zelen’s older brother and a swimmer at Wisconsin, was a standout for Duluth .

Coach Cliff Knettel said Wodny is “quiet” but “leads by example” and Oase, a co-captain on the Duluth team, provides a different and important style to the team.

“Grant’s great with those the kids of all ages and abilities,” Knettel said. “He’s a great mentor to those younger swimmers, regardless of what events they do and others on the team are too. Erik is another example — he’s fantastic with the younger swimmers. He looks out for them and mentors them a lot. It’s great that we have different types of team leadership like that.”


A ‘strategic’ swimmer

While swimming is all about the fastest time, the way to get there isn’t always about going as fast as possible all the time.

Wodny is a “strategic” swimmer, Oase said. He contemplates the best way to get to the top of the podium and, even though he’s typically soft-spoken, he lets his opinion be known to his teammates.

“Grant’s a pretty quiet kid, but he’s a smart kid,” Oase said. “We play a lot of strategy games on the team and for a while our whole team was into chess. He’s pretty good at that stuff and you can see it overlapping races, because he’s very strategic. He can draft off of people — which is where you ride in their wake — and with the 500 that’s really useful.”

Oase said the other day the team was arguing about the best stroke technique and Wodny wasn’t shy about telling them what he thought.

“Grant had his input and it was, like usual, clear, concise and he says, ‘This is what I think,’” Oase said.

Wodny plans to study computer science at Minnesota and he sees a connection between the field and swimming.

After finishing third in the state in the 500-yard freestyle in 2021, the junior owns the best Class AA times in Minnesota in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle events in 2022.

“Strategy has always been something that I naturally think about in every aspect,” Wodny said. “I want to go into the field of computer science and coding involves similar thinking. I try to apply that wherever I can to try to make things more efficient or get a better outcome.”

That strategy will come in handy when he heads back to the state meet March 2-4 in Minneapolis.


“I’ve got a target on my back, it can be a lot harder to be chased than the chaser,” Wodny said. “I really want to improve my times and get to a place where I can be competitive next year at a big school like Minnesota and from there it’ll be really nice to have a lot of faster swimmers that I can be pushed by.”

‘A big pair of shoes to fill’

Wodny, Ryan Zelen and Rudd have all helped put Duluth on “the swimming radar statewide,” Knettel said, something that wasn’t true even 10 years ago.

“We weren’t viewed as a swimming powerhouse and we’re not now,” Knettel said. “There’s other programs — the bigs, Edina and Minnetonka — but we’re in that next tier and that’s a great place for us to be. We’ve accomplished a lot to get there and that’s not just because of Grant. We’ve had a lot of talented swimmers and a lot of young talent, swimmers that are going to carry us on for the next few years, but Grant has helped shape that, for sure.”

With Wodny heading to Minneapolis to swim for the Gophers next season, Zelen and his teammates know it won’t be easy to replace perhaps the best swimmer in program history, but they’re going to do what they can.

“Grant is definitely going to leave a big pair of shoes to fill, but we have a lot of good talent on the team that’s ready to fill them,” Zelen said. “Travis has really improved this year a lot and, hopefully, me too. I hope I get faster and I’m able to help fill those shoes, but it’s definitely going to be a struggle. He was in a lot of relays and got a lot of points for the team.”

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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