Almost as quickly as he swam the 50m freestyle final during the World Swimming Championships (25m) in Melbourne, Jordan Crooks became an overnight sensation.

Not only did Crooks take down established stars Florent Manaudou and Ben Proud, but he became the first swimmer from the Cayman Islands to win a gold medal at the World Championships. Crooks won the 50m freestyle gold medal at 20.46, and became the fourth fastest man in history with his time in the semifinals.

Crooks backed up the disappointment of the 100m freestyle from earlier in the meet, where he was the top seed after both the heats and the semifinals. In the final, after leading for 75 meters, he fell to seventh. In the 50m, he repeated his feats of swimming the fastest in the heats and the semis, but backed it up to win the gold in the final.

“I think the 100 just didn’t pan out the way I wanted it to,” Crooks told World Aquatics. “The first half of the race was more frantic than I usually swim it, and I think I paid for it in the last 25. I tried to use that frustration to just get through the 50 and make it through semis and ultimately the final.”

Image Source: Jordan Crooks and Kyle Chalmers of Australia embrace after their Men's 100m Freestyle Semifinal in Melbourne (Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

It blew Crooks’s expectations out of the water.

“I was just hoping to make a semi-final in both events because I hadn’t competed in short course meters since 2020,” Crooks said. “I figured I could definitely go some PB’s and a semi-final or two might be cool.”

And just like that, Crooks, age 20, established himself as an international star.

But if one had followed Crooks up to this point, it didn’t come as a huge surprise.

Crooks is currently in his sophomore season at the University of Tennessee in the United States, where he is the fastest man in college in the 50y freestyle. As a freshman in 2022, he was third in the 50y freestyle final at the NCAAs, and as a sophomore this year, made an even bigger jump.

At the SEC Championships in February, Crooks became the first swimmer to break 19 seconds in a 50y butterfly relay split and also became the second man after Caeleb Dressel to break 18 seconds from a flat start in the 50y freestyle.

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Crooks has been able to reflect on some of his success however, receiving a hero’s welcome upon coming back home to the Cayman Islands after the Short Course World Championships. The idols that he grew up watching - Brett and Shaune Fraser, who got gold and silver in the 200m freestyle at the 2011 Pan American Games, had reached out to him with pride that they had been following along. Not only was his gold medal important for the people of the Cayman Islands, but the Caribbean as a whole.

To share the podium with Trinidad & Tobago’s Dylan Carter, who finished third in the race in Melbourne, made it all the more special.

“There’s definitely a lot of competitive spirit between the islands but we all like to see each other do well,” Crooks said. “I definitely felt the energy from each one of them before and after the race. It was really special because I think it was the first time two Caribbean people have shared a podium at a meet like that.”

Life on Rocky Top

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Crooks had come to the Knoxville Pro Series in January 2020 with the hopes of picking up a B cut in the 50m freestyle to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. It was there Crooks came into contact with Tennessee coach Josh Huger. At that meet at age 17, Crooks was the D-final champion in the 50m freestyle at 23.48, and was 24th in the 100m freestyle at 51.62. He admits he wasn’t being highly recruited by other schools in the U.S., having only lined up one official visit to the University of Tennessee after the meet that never ended up happening because of the pandemic. It was the strong relationship he maintained with Huger that led Crooks to commit to Tennessee and join the team in September 2021.

“I chose it because it was different and I wanted to go somewhere where I didn’t really know anybody, and they wanted me,” Crooks said.

Image Source: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In just two years at Knoxville, Crooks has made a name for himself. In 2020, he was over a second behind the fastest junior sprinters in the world. Now in 2023, he is one of the fastest men in the world.

“I think one of the biggest things for me was improving in the weight room,” Crooks said of his sophomore-year improvements. “I was not that good as a freshman in the weight room. I didn’t really do too much before I came in as a freshman. I definitely improved on leg exercises in the weight room and weight exercises in the pool like racks, towers and that kind of stuff; just swimming with resistance. I did a lot of underwater work with parachutes and socks - that really helped.”

Image Source: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images
"I definitely improved on leg exercises in the weight room and weight exercises in the pool like racks, towers and that kind of stuff; just swimming with resistance. I did a lot of underwater work with parachutes and socks - that really helped.”
By Jordan Crooks

Crooks has always been a good underwater swimmer because he was admittedly “not the fastest on the surface.”

“I found that if I stayed under a little bit longer, I could stay with the people I was racing,” Crooks said. “As I got older I started to push it a little bit more. I never used to go past even 10 off the wall. That was about the max and then I realized that if I stayed under longer, it made a much bigger difference in my race.”

Chasing Barriers in the Twin Cities

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Ahead of the meet this week in Minneapolis, in addition to being the top seed in the 50y freestyle, he is also seeded second in the 100y butterfly and 100y freestyle. Between the SEC Championships and NCAAs, he is fine-tuning his race details - knowing where the 15m mark is without having to look for the 50y freestyle, knowing how many strokes to take for the 100y fly, and breathing into the last 25 for the 100y freestyle.

And the race he is most excited for? The 50 freestyle - where he is chasing a once unbreakable record of 17.63 by Caeleb Dressel.

“Definitely the 50 free and the 400 free relay I am really excited for,” Crooks said. “I was really happy with our SEC performance so I think we still have a lot left to improve on so I think NCAAs will be great.”

After all of his recent success at the Short Course Worlds and the SECs, the swimming universe is excited about what Crooks can accomplish. His social media following has ballooned to over 7,000 followers, and he is quickly becoming one of the sprinters to watch ahead of this summer’s Worlds.

After NCAAs this week, he will shift his attention to long course as he prepares to qualify for the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, where he will be focusing on the 50m and 100m freestyle events in the Olympic distance.

No matter what happens this week in Minneapolis, Crooks is staying on task and not letting the outside attention deter him.

“I try to do this thing one of my coaches says - Rich Murphy: he says a lot of time during meets to stay in the process,” Crooks said. “I think of it as the job is not done and there is still more to do and I try not to really pay attention to social media.”