Late to the (Pool) Party
A Late Start Doesn’t Delay Success for Fergus Falls Swimmer Luke Raitz
by Norm Newell
Photography by Janssen Photography
A top thrill of my life for sure,” says Luke Raitz, a few weeks after finishing second in the 50-yard freestyle finals at the MSHSL Swimming and Diving meet, and achieving All-State recognition along the way. “But equally exciting as I looked back was the thrill of being with your teammates and friends, having the skill building and encouragement of your coaches, and as much the realization that all you’ve worked for over the last five years came to a culmination that I never thought could happen when I first started swimming.”
A very mature answer for the newly-minted school record holder.
Raitz continued, “Being part of a team, you grow very close to your teammates over the years of practice. Finishing well in relay races with your buddies also was very exciting.” Luke anchored the 200-yard freestyle relay team that finished fifth in the state, the 400-yard freestyle relay that also finished fifth, and the 200-yard medley relay team. He was a busy young man at this year’s tournament.
Luke set a new school record of 21.11 seconds in his state 50-yard freestyle race and simply says, “It’s exciting, but also very humbling, to see your name on the records board along with all the great Fergus Falls swimmers that have gone before.” Swimming for his relay teammates in the 200-yard medley relay, he swam the fastest 50 yards at the state meet, a 20.66 second split. The state 400-yard freestyle relay team he anchored alongside teammates Dalton Mouritsen, Justin Mortenson and Daniel Kowalski, also set a new school record of 3:15:02, placing them fifth at the state meet.
Raitz didn’t start competitive swimming until the 8th grade, a relatively late start for a swimmer. But with his natural athletic ability, he made great strides early under the tutelage of legendary Fergus Falls Otter swim coach, Tom Uvaas. Raitz gives significant credit to “Coach U” for teaching him the technique, and pushing and encouraging him to be the best he could be every day. “No way would I have gotten to that level without Coach U and all his technical knowledge and encouragement,” says Raitz. “He’s a great role model, teaches you life lessons as well as swimming, and continually talks about how your hard work will pay off in swimming, but also later in life.”
Determination comes natural for Luke and he embraced the hard work. Like weightlifting in the fall and during the swim season with strength coach Paul Ratz, and following his lifting and nutrition regimens. Swimming practices are three times a week in the mornings from 6:15 to 7:30 a.m., and after school every day of the week from 3:30 to 6 p.m. That’s a lot of time in the pool, but it indeed paid off. Luke made the varsity squad his 9th grade year, and qualified for the state tourney as a member of the 400-yard freestyle relay. His sophomore year, Raitz made state in the 200 and 400-yard freestyle relays, garnering a fourth place finish in the 400 relay. The team took third at state that year, another one of Luke’s thrilling moments. Junior year, state again, in the 200 medley relay, and the 200 and 400 free relays.
So I asked Luke, “How many state medals do you have?” His response? “I don’t know the exact count, but I’ve got some hanging in my room.” Evidence of a great number of state appearances for a young man relatively new to the sport.
Coach U and the Otters have always been known for their tapering process, where you build up strength and endurance with extra hard practices four weeks before the section meet, then taper down to a week before sections where you have lighter, shorter practices focused on technique and muscle recovery. That process has given Coach U’s teams and individual swimmers frequent personal best times at tournament time and consistent trips to the state tournament.
That process worked to perfection for Luke. He swam his best time ever in the 50 free in the state final race.
When Coach Uvaas talks about Luke he starts by saying, “One of the nicest young men I’ve had the pleasure to coach over my 40 years.” High praise from a coach who has coached a lot of swimmers over the years. Uvaas says, “He probably wouldn’t mention to you that he was All-State in three events at the tournament and received nominations from other coaches for State Male Swimmer of the Year.
Coach Uvaas was right, Luke was too humble to mention that.
Uvaas continues, “Or that at our team awards banquet he received the Olson Award for Most Valuable Swimmer and the Del Norris Spirit and Integrity Award.”
Yup. Luke didn’t mention those achievements either.
“Luke had an exceptional performance for our team at state,” says Uvaas, “Especially for being relatively young in the sport. He has been accepted at the University of Minnesota where I hope his swimming journey will continue, but regardless, I know his character will provide him with many opportunities for success in the future.”
Basketball was Luke’s primary winter sport in his youth, participating in the Backcourt Club basketball program from 1st grade through 7th grade. But as he started his growth spurt to his current-day 6’8” frame, he had some knee and joint pain that took some of the enjoyment of basketball away. His mother, Deanne encouraged him to give swimming a try. Luke had always enjoyed swimming at his Grandma Carol’s (on Green Lake near Spicer, Minn.) as well as his swimming lessons with Inga Nelson at the YMCA. Luke’s mom, Deanne says, “I remember Inga telling me when Luke was around 5 years old that he was a natural and could be a good swimmer someday, so I encouraged him to give it a try. It was my hope that competing in the water would be less stress on his knees. We’re all glad it turned out so well.”
Deanne and Luke’s dad, Chad, both say that Luke was always a determined child, always self-motivated and always willing to try different things and do extra work to be better. “He would see a goal and set his mind to accomplish it,” they say. Deanne notes, “When he was a Cub Scout and witnessed the crossing over ceremony to Boy Scouts. As a 1st grader he said to us that he wanted to “walk over that bridge” which he did in 5th grade, beginning his journey as a Boy Scout.” From there, Luke then set the goal to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank and most difficult level to achieve in scouting. He accomplished that last year with the completion of his final project which included fundraising for and building an enclosed bike shelter at Lake Region Hospital.
Raitz is also an accomplished baseball pitcher. Like many players he started in the T-ball leagues when he first started grade school and played every summer. About five years ago, he settled in as a pitcher which also turned out well. At 6’8” he had grown into a well-muscled player with a long and powerful arm that can bring the heater (i.e. good fast ball). His junior year he developed back problems which shortened his season, but he had a procedure to deal with nerve issues in his lower back and did all the long and arduous rehabilitation necessary to come back for swimming and baseball his senior year.
Once again demonstrating his drive and determination. Baseball coach Mark Aho says, “Luke is a role model for his teammates, classmates, younger individuals, and also for us adults. He has handled his adversity with patience and professionalism and with diligence he has gotten himself back to being a top pitcher for us, earning the first start of the year this spring.”
As his parents have noted, Luke is always willing to try different things. In school he played in the band until his junior year and has been in the choir throughout high school. He is a National Honor Society member with a 3.56 GPA. This year he is serving in the senior mentoring program, going to Morning Son to help his former first grade teacher Diane Selvig with her class. He enjoys it. Deanne says, “Mrs. Selvig says the kids just love him and call him Mr. Luke. When he got the colored hair for the state swim meet
(a Fergus Falls tradition) he had to go around to all the classes at Morning Son so they could see it. The kids in Mrs. Selvig’s class in turn made a booklet of individual pictures and notes for Luke wishing him well at the state meet. It was a lot of fun for Luke, and also for Chad and I.”
Outside of school, Luke is an avid hunter, a natural since father Chad works for the Fish and Wildlife Service and has been an outdoorsman all his life. “Luke enjoys fishing and duck hunting, but also deer and turkey hunting where he uses bow and arrow. He’s gotten two deer bow hunting and that’s an accomplishment in itself,” Chad notes. Luke has also worked at the Pebble Lake Golf Course in the pro shop and does filming of sporting events for Park Region Channel 1.
Chad and Deanne Raitz are understandably quite proud of what Luke has accomplished in sports and were beaming at the state tournament, but they both say, “We are most proud of who he has become and how well he treats other people. He’s a friend to everyone and treats all people with genuine kindness.” That exact testament comes through from coaches, teachers and other adults that have met and commented about Luke Raitz being “a super young man”.
Luke plans to attend the University of Minnesota where the swim coach requested that he fill out the recruitment form. “My swimming years in high school have been such a great experience I wouldn’t trade for anything,” says Luke, “But I will now move on into the next phase of life. I will talk more with the coach at the U of M and see where that leads.” He’s thinking the field of business, economics or possibly something with natural resources for a vocation. He also plans to room at the U with swim teammate and friend Dalton Mouritsen and together they talk about maybe trying out the water polo team there.
Whatever he chooses and wherever he goes, success is sure to follow.