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'It's the best thing that could've happened to me:' John Gulon makes physical and mental changes after COVID-19 cost him a trip to state

After coming up short by one hundredth of a second in the 100-yard backstroke in the 2021 Section 8A meet, Detroit Lakes' John Gulon revamped his approach to swimming, which has opened the door to new opportunities.

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John Gulon (right) gives a fist bump to a Bemidji swimmer after the 100-yard backstroke on Dec. 21, 2021 at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center on during the Detroit Lakes boys swimming and diving home opener. Gulon set his season-best time at 58.81 after a rigorous offseason training regimen. Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune
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John Gulon was one of last year’s favorites to win the Section 8A 100-yard backstroke after qualifying for state in 2020. However, in the weeks leading up to sections, Gulon was on the shelf after testing positive for COVID-19–causing him to eventually miss out on back-to-back state bids by seven-tenths of a second.

Gulon was able to race at sections but wasn’t able to train in the two weeks leading up to what he hoped was his penultimate meet. The COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on youth sports during the 2020-21 school year, and the Detroit Lakes swimming and diving team was no exception. But what was seen as a gutting situation turned out to be the thing Gulon needed to take his career a step forward.

“That kind of took away my chance at going to state,” Gulon said of getting Covid in March of last year. “But what happened was I started losing weight when I had Covid. In the offseason, I started boxing at Golden Gloves boxing. The weight loss and not getting that chance last season–it was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. I had a bad lifestyle. I wasn’t eating right, and I was unhealthy. It’s definitely reformed me to be better for this season and my career.”

Gulon’s boxing regimen led him to lose over 80 pounds before his senior season. Last year, he finished with a backstroke time of 57.31. Just three meets into this season, Gulon posted a time of 58.81 last Tuesday against Bemidji.

“I usually start the season at a minute or above for my backstroke time, so I’m pleased with how I’m performing this early,” Gulon said. “I’m already under a minute at 58 seconds. I’m pretty happy with that. I would’ve definitely been above a minute in the backstroke right now if I didn’t change.”

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John Gulon swims the 100-yard backstroke on Dec. 21, 2021 at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center on during the Detroit Lakes boys swimming and diving home opener. Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

Gulon’s goal for this season is to get back to state, and he’s more determined than he’s ever been. Detroit Lakes head coach Will Blasczyk was impressed to see his work ethic and leadership from day one this season.

“When I first saw him, I was like, ‘We have LeBron James on our team,’” Blasczyk said jokingly. “In one of the practices, we were doing a longer (individual medley) set, and he had to do a long stretch of butterfly. He got all the way down the pool in three strokes. He’s got this 7-foot wingspan, and he towers over everybody. He’s just huge, but he works hard to make the most of it. Everyone on this team does their best to try to keep up with John.”

“It’d be great if we could get John Gulon to state this year because he’s a really good swimmer that’s put in a lot of work,” Blasczyk said. “The best we can do as a team is just get him to keep improving. If he keeps that hunger, I think he can do it.”

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John Gulon waits for the 100-yard freestyle race to start during the Detroit Lakes boys swimming and diving home opener at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center. Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

Gulon’s reinvention of himself is also learning how to become a person people look up to. While all of his teammates physically look up to him, he wants to lead by example.

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“All the time,” Gulon said of when he feels like a leader. “I think everybody remembers the guys they looked up to when they were (new to varsity). It’s my turn to be that guy.”

Growing up with the Gulons

John is the second Gulon to have swimming success at the high school level. His sister, Sydney, is a junior on the St. Cloud State swimming and diving team.

“She’s a big supporter,” Gulon said of his sister. “She used to start out in distance events, and now she’s a sprinter. She’s very versatile, and she gives me great feedback in whatever I do. She’s a great person to have. She practiced with us (last Monday), and she gave me a workout. We are always going to push each other.”

Growing up, swimming wasn’t always in the cards for Gulon.

“When I started swimming in sunfish, I didn’t pass all of my levels,” Gulon said. “My sister was the one that I looked at, and that’s why I stuck with it, I guess. I tried all sports. I didn’t even like swimming at first, but everything I tried, I didn’t fit in. Everything kept coming back to swimming.”

Gulon has a chance to swim after high school, just like his sister. While making it to state in his final high school run is the goal, he has a bigger picture in mind for himself.

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John Gulon swims the 100-yard freestyle on Dec. 21, 2021 at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center on during the Detroit Lakes boys swimming and diving home opener. Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

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“I always know there’s something that comes next for me,” Gulon said. “Right now, I’m nominated for the AirForce and Naval academies. I have applications in, and I might be swimming for them.”

Serving in the military isn’t a new concept for Gulon. But, much like swimming, his run-in with Covid last year gave him the push he needed to make his goals more attainable.

“The military was on my mind, but I wasn’t physically ready,” Gulon said. “The changes I made have me in a better place now. It would be amazing for me to be a part of the Naval or AirForce academies to build my character and integrity.”

Blasczyk called the backstroke Gulon’s “bread and butter.” It’s a race that taught him not to be complacent and push himself.

“Every time you step in the pool, you get the feeling that you’re chasing something,” Gulon said. “It could be a guy on another team or one of your times. I love that feeling, especially in the backstroke. When I feel my arms go in and out of the water, it feels great. That’s my place.”

Jared Rubado is the sports editor for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus. He moved to the area in September of 2021 after covering sports for the Alexandria Echo Press for nearly three years. Jared graduated from the University of Augustana in 2018 with degrees in journalism and sports managment.
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