Swimming machines: How three mechanical engineering student-athletes are achieving dreams in sport and life
Mechanical engineering is all about efficiency. Experts in this field study factors of motion — angles, rotation, speed — to ensure optimal system design and production. Fluid mechanics, flow rates and drag reduction are the metrics that indicate whether or not the energy being expended achieves superior functionality and durability.
One can draw similar conclusions about swimming.
“Think of your shoulders as an engine, and your body is a machine engineered to swim,” said Ahmed Ahmed, a senior on the Wayne State University men’s swimming and diving team. Ahmed, along with fellow engineering student-athletes Joao Martimbianco Ribeiro and Franz Mueller, will compete in the NCAA Division II Championships this week in Geneva, Ohio.
This trio of finely tuned machines came to Wayne State from three different continents in pursuit of the same dream — to swim with and against elite-level athletes while receiving a world-class education in mechanical engineering.
Mueller was born in Brandenburg, Germany, which, at 4,200 miles from Detroit, is actually the shortest distance compared to the hometowns of Ribeiro (Sao Paulo, Brazil — 5,100 miles) and Ahmed (Alexandria, Egypt — 5,800 miles).
Swimming competitively for almost their entire lives, all three swimmers were among the best prospects in their sport in their respective countries, but quickly realized that the opportunities to combine athletics and academics beyond high school paled in comparison to the intercollegiate system in the U.S.
They each entertained offers from other schools, but ultimately Wayne State’s location, strong engineering programs and financial support checked all the boxes they needed to take a leap of faith across an ocean and come to Detroit.
“It’s basically a full-time job”
Mueller remembers hoisting the trophy after his team’s fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships last season. It was the squad’s best showing in four years and its 12th top-eight in the last 15 national meets.
“It was so incredible to hold that thing in my hands,” said Mueller.
He is only a sophomore, but has already earned recognition as an All-American in the pool and the classroom. Mueller is also a member of the WSU Student Leadership Council — all of this while swimming an average of 4,000 yards a day in practice.
“Being a student-athlete means you are a student first, but it’s basically a full-time job,” said Mueller.
As with any “job,” it helps if you enjoy being around your “coworkers” as well as your “boss.” Mueller met head coach Sean Peters in person for the first time prior to the first day of practice in 2017. Over the last two seasons, Mueller has grown to admire Peters’ combination of personality and professionalism.
“He’s more than a coach,” said Mueller. “He’s a friend.”
Mueller also found a refreshing level of mutual respect among not only his fellow student-athletes, but across campus. As an international student himself, he fully embraced the diversity of the university and the opportunity to integrate with students of different cultures.
He and several teammates recently celebrated Chinese New Year with Jia Yi Koh, a swimmer on the women’s team who hails from Malaysia and is also going to nationals.
“She always makes these dumplings that are awesome,” Mueller said with a smile. “I like food.”
While Detroit has become a second home to Mueller, he keeps in close contact with his original one. He video chats with his parents every day, and had an opportunity to show them around the city when they came to visit last summer. They also took a trip to Mackinac Island.
As for this summer, Mueller is looking to obtain an internship and is hopeful for research opportunities in the automotive industry. He has a keen interest in renewable energy, hydrogen fuel cells and other advanced automotive technologies — an interest he hopes to parlay into opportunities to work in South Korea after he graduates.
“Everyone’s from everywhere”
Ribeiro acknowledges that coming to the end of his swimming career “is exciting, but a little bit scary.”
So was starting it. His first time coming to Detroit was the start of classes in January 2017. He joined the team mid-season, but felt right at home — even though “home” meant something different to everybody. Nine different countries are represented between the men’s and women’s swimming and diving rosters.
“It makes you feel welcome,” said Ribeiro. “Everyone’s from everywhere. You don’t feel like an outsider.”
Many of the upper classmen gave Ribeiro advice on the process of being a student-athlete in the U.S., especially the importance of staying organized and working ahead of schedule. He’s managed to balance a demanding academic major with a rigorous practice schedule that occupies up to 20 hours per week on his calendar. As a six-time All-American, two-year co-captain and multi-time member of the Dean’s List, he’s now uniquely qualified to pay that advice forward to his younger teammates, including Mueller, who also happens to be his roommate.
“I’m very proud of everything I’ve done the past four years,” said Ribeiro, who will remain at Wayne State for one more year of school after this season ends.
Ribeiro is a jack of all trades in the pool. His specialty is the 400 individual medley, an event in which he has claimed four GLIAC championships (and meet records) and top-eight finishes at the NCAA Championships each of the last two years. He considers himself a breaststroker primarily, but his proficiency in the other three disciplines allows him to fill almost any role as needed.
He’s also a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and enjoys coordinating volunteer opportunities for an athletic department that’s consistently among the top Division II programs in the nation. Wayne State student-athletes accumulated over 10,000 hours of service last year working with local youth sports programs and nonprofits such as Gleaners Food Bank, Detroit PAL and the American Heart Association.
“My definition of success expanded so much after I got to Wayne State,” said Ribeiro. “These leadership opportunities have really allowed me to leave my mark.”
“Another piece of the puzzle”
When he started out, Ahmed didn’t like swimming. He wasn’t showing much promise or passion for the sport. But by age 11 it started to click, and six years later he was one of the top three swimmers in all of Egypt.
Ahmed knew that something else had to click academically. Courses such as biology, economics and business never made sense to him. He excelled in math and physics. He loved learning about air and space travel. He wanted to study engine systems and aerodynamics.
Ahmed turned down offers to swim at other universities because everything at Wayne State checked out. Besides reputable engineering and swimming programs, he desired to go to school in a cold climate.
“I lived 18 years of my life in Egypt, and I cannot stand the hot weather,” said Ahmed. “I wanted to experience a different environment.”
Ahmed made an immediate impact upon arrival. He was the GLIAC Freshman of the Year and a four-time conference champion. However, his career nearly derailed as he missed the 2017-18 season with a serious medical condition.
During a difficult transition period for him and the team, doubt crept in. Can he come back? If so, would he be the same? Had his teammates and opponents surpassed him?
“The first two months were horrible,” said Ahmed of his return the following season. “I didn’t feel like I was getting back in shape and I wouldn’t be the swimmer I was before. I kind of lost hope.”
With the support of his coaches and teammates, he started to find himself again. He won three more GLIAC titles over the next three years.
As his passion for swimming was rejuvenated, his passion for engineering was unwavering. He traveled to China for the Global Engineering Program in the summer of 2018 with Professor Chin-An Tan. Ahmed worked with students across disciplines from Michigan, California and China on case studies, and presented projects to various companies.
Ahmed sees working with people from other cultures as opportunities to improve himself and develop skills he may be lacking.
“Every engineering class is like adding another piece of the puzzle to understand how things work in the world,” said Ahmed.
He will likely go to graduate school on an academic scholarship in the University of Cincinnati’s aerospace engineering program, bringing him another step closer to a dream job of working at NASA as a rocket propulsions systems engineer.
“An exclamation point”
Soon after the NCAA Championships conclude, Ribeiro and Ahmed will move on to pursue other dreams. But at least for one more week, they are Warriors who plan to swim until the tank to empty.
“I want to give all of my energy and effort, and I hope we can accomplish something great to put an exclamation point on the end,” said Ribeiro.
Meanwhile, Mueller will take over as one of the team’s elder statesmen. He already has advice for the new crop of student-athletes, domestic and international alike.
“They have to know for themselves what they want to do,” he said. “If you are not convinced of what you’re capable of, you won’t achieve your goals.”
“Have the discipline to do what you need now,” added Ribeiro, “so that you can do what you want later.”
Follow Wayne State’s results at the 2020 NCAA Division II Swimming and Diving Championships, March 11-14, at wsuathletics.com.