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 first-year Pomona-Pitzer swimmer from Singapore has chatted with Michael Phelps on the pool deck and raced against Ian Thorpe, another Olympic great.
He has competed in Beijing, Berlin, Stockholm, Dubai and three times in Moscow.
“I saw the pool and Red Square, that’s all,” he says with a laugh. “It was nonetheless wonderful.”
Menkhoff’s dripping-wet tour of the world will take him to Indianapolis this month, where the 6-foot-4 standout will be one of eight Pomona-Pitzer men’s swimmers competing in the NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships. This opportunity comes after Menkhoff and Mark Hallman ’18 helped lead the Sagehens to the first SCIAC men’s swimming championship in Pomona-Pitzer history. The Sagehen women made it a sweep and also will send eight swimmers to the March 21-24 meet.
Hallman was selected as the SCIAC Male Athlete of the Year for his performance, and Menkhoff was named Newcomer of the Year after winning the 100-yard breaststroke, 100 freestyle and 50 freestyle – setting meet records in all three events – and playing a huge part in four record-setting relays.
“I am deeply honored to have been a part of the SCIAC championship team. Together we contributed to a momentous and remarkable achievement in Sagehen swimming history,” Menkhoff says, calling it “a truly special” achievement for the seniors and the program.
Menkhoff goes into the NCAA Championships with the fastest time in the nation in the 100 breaststroke by a Div. III swimmer this season at 53.70 seconds. He also qualified in the 100 freestyle with the second-fastest time in Div. III (44.17) and will swim in four relays for the Sagehens. His times suggest he has a chance to do something no Pomona-Pitzer swimmer has ever done.
“Looking ahead to the NCAAs, I am extremely keen on potentially earning Pomona-Pitzer’s first-ever individual NCAA swimming national title – something that I have been working towards this entire season – and together with the rest of the team, elevating the program to new heights,” Menkhoff says, taking time to credit Pomona-Pitzer coach Jean-Paul Gowdy, his staff and the team.
Menkhoff hardly could have taken a more circuitous route to Indianapolis, or 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.
Singapore’s small population gave Menkhoff opportunities he wouldn’t have had as an American. He was a member of the national team at 14, 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.
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.
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 Gowdy, the Sagehen 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 benefits from the presence of Hallman and Samuel To ’18, two seniors who also qualified for 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. “He doesn’t have any experience at the NCAA Championship level and he has potential to make a real impact this year, and so he’s really lucky to have those two [To and Hallman] on the NCAA team with him. Going to the NCAAs is going to be different from competing against CMS or Whittier or other SCIAC teams, and they should really help him a little bit more than if he was doing it on his own.”
This, it would seem, is just the beginning.