The line at the bottom of the pool is always straight, but it has taken Lukas Ming Menkhoff ’21 on a winding path around the world.
The 6-foot-4 swimmer from Singapore has competed in Beijing, Berlin, Stockholm, Dubai and Moscow on his dripping-wet international tour.
Indianapolis might not have the same ring, but the first-year swimmer made Pomona-Pitzer history there Friday, becoming the first men’s swimmer in Sagehen history to win an individual NCAA title when he claimed the 100-yard breaststroke at the NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships.
The Pomona-Pitzer men’s team finished eighth overall and the women were ninth, marking the first time both teams have finished in the top 10 in the same season. (See Sagehens.com for details.)
“It’s a deep honor. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my teammates and coach,” Menkhoff said after earning first-team All-American honors with his victory and setting a Pomona-Pitzer record with his time of 53.39 seconds. “Strangely I wasn’t nervous at all for this race. I was determined to start the race well, kick the wall and stick with my plan. I was able to execute what I visualized.”
Menkhoff also combined with Mark Hallman ’18, Samuel To ’18 and Ryan Drover ’19 to take third in the 400 freestyle relay in 2:59.08, a Pomona-Pitzer record, and Menkhoff finished ninth in the 100 freestyle in 44.22.
Early International Experience
Menkhoff hardly could have taken a more circuitous route to Pomona College. Already 22 years old as a first-year student, he completed Singapore’s mandatory military service before beginning his college career. He also spent a year focused almost entirely on training with the national team between high school and the military.
His arrival at Pomona-Pitzer added a new level of international experience to the program this season. After making Singapore’s national team at 14, he had the opportunity at a young age to mingle with some of swimming’s stars, chatting with Michael Phelps on the pool deck and racing against Ian Thorpe, another Olympic great.
Singapore’s small population gave Menkhoff opportunities he wouldn’t have had as an American. He has swum in 14 FINA Swimming World Cups and almost made the prestigious Commonwealth Games team.
“For me, it was a true privilege to be able to represent Singapore and swim on the world stage with Olympians and world-record holders, train alongside and converse with them, learn from them and even dine with them,” says Menkhoff, whose races for the national team as a teenager were sometimes televised.
Singapore’s most famous swimmer might be two-time Olympian Joseph Schooling, now a University of Texas swimmer best-known for winning the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly in in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, defeating Phelps and putting Singapore swimming on the world stage.
An Encounter with Phelps
Menkhoff has had his Phelps moments too, training at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Phelps’ home club, for several weeks one summer as a teenager.
Phelps approached him on the pool deck, complimenting Menkhoff’s freestyle stroke as “so long and smooth” and comparing it to Thorpe’s, with the whole interaction captured on video.
“So that was a surreal moment, but he also imparted a lot of great advice,” Menkhoff says, remembering how Phelps gave him some technique tips, told him never to quit and to always swim from the heart.
“Obviously I was dumbfounded by that whole interaction, but you realize that these swimming idols of yours are human beings and you’re able to converse at the same level as anyone else,” Menkhoff says.
A year later, Menkhoff was swimming in a World Cup meet in Singapore when Thorpe, the Australian Olympian, came out of retirement.
“Same heat, four lanes down,” Menkhoff says.
Menkhoff knew mandatory military service awaited six months after high school, but scheduled an additional six-month deferment.
“In that year, I was a full-time swimmer, training with the national team, traveling the world, competing,” he says. “That was an incredible experience. I managed to squeeze in two internships in that period, but I was mostly swimming.”
Enlisting in the military in May 2015, Menkhoff spent four months in basic training and six months in specialist cadet school, graduated as a third sergeant and was posted to the 9th Singapore Infantry Regiment. Ultimately, he was assigned to complete his service helping oversee the training of other soldiers as a subject matter expert.
The College Search
During that time, he undertook what became an exhaustive and methodical college search.
“It was quite remarkable how organized he was about his college search process,” says Jean-Paul Gowdy, the Pomona-Pitzer coach. “He was looking at schools in Britain and he was looking at schools in the U.S. He had a whole spreadsheet that he showed us after the fact.”
Menkhoff researched and communicated with dozens of universities. Yet Pomona College was the first he visited in the U.S., and Gowdy the first coach he met with. He considered Division I programs before learning his post-high school competitions would cost him a year of eligibility, and ultimately circled back to where he began with that first chat in Gowdy’s office.
“That’s when I began to realize, where is swimming in my life right now?” Menkhoff says. “It’s not, certainly, my career. It has in many ways been keeping me back from finding myself and my true interests. I realized that the Division III setting is perfect for me, the best of both worlds. For me, deep down, within that four-month college search process, I knew Pomona was for me, and it was mostly the interaction I had with Coach Gowdy.”
Despite all his international experience, Menkhoff also benefitted from the presence of Hallman and To, two seniors who competed alongside him in the NCAA meet.
“In a lot of ways, Lukas is good for them; in a lot of ways, they’re very good for him,” Gowdy says.
For Menkhoff, it would seem, this is just the beginning.
Sagehens.com contributed to this report.