UNIVERSITY PARK - Mark Rubin hopes to make a splash as Penn State's starting safety this season, but there's a good chance nothing he'll ever achieve in sports will give him something better to brag about than this:
Rubin beat Michael Phelps in swimming. Several times.
Yep, that Michael Phelps - the greatest swimmer in history who recently won eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics.
Mirror file photo
Mark Rubin is listed first on the depth charts for Penn State at the hero back position this fall.
''Maybe I beat him three, four, five, six, seven times,'' Rubin said.
Rubin not alone
Former Penn State punter Brian Masella also was an accomplished swimmer. He even held the school record in the 50 freestyle for a time during the early 1970s.
''He beat me 20, 30, 40 times,'' Rubin added.
Still, that's not a bad ratio against the most successful Olympic athlete ever.
Rubin, a senior from Amherst, N.Y., was an elite youth swimmer and eight-time All-American in the water. He raced Phelps between the ages of 12 and 14.
''He was from Baltimore ... and swimming sort of goes by regions,'' Rubin said, ''so the whole northeast would swim against each other for the bigger meets.''
Rubin was one of the nation's finest swimmers in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke. Phelps excelled in almost every event, like he does now, but the short sprints were his weaker ones.
''Those were the events that I actually did beat him in,'' Rubin said. ''Pretty much every other event he beat me.''
Rubin, who also competed against gold medalist Ryan Lochte, won numerous titles in high school and was recruited by many colleges as a swimmer. Penn State wanted him for both swimming and football.
''I remember placing calls to Mark all the time,'' said Nittany Lion swimming head coach John Hargis, who was an assistant at the time. ''It was funny: Every time his dad would answer the phone, and I'd be like, 'John from Penn State.' He'd be like, 'Are you swimming or football?'
''I think his preference was obviously football,'' Hargis added. ''It was one of those deals where if he got scholarship offers from the schools he wanted - Penn State obviously being one of them - he was going to go football.''
Rubin chose the Lions to play on the gridiron, but that didn't stop Hargis from pursuing him. He kept in contact with receivers coach Mike McQueary - Rubin began his career as a receiver - about possibly joining the swim team during Rubin's freshman season.
Coach Joe Paterno never exactly nixed the idea, Hargis noted, and McQueary seemed to be in favor of it.
''But I don't know if even Mark was willing to do that just because how important offseason football is for those guys,'' Hargis said.
Just how good was Rubin as a teenager?
''He was an outstanding swimmer,'' his assistant coach in high school, Chris Connor, said. ''I think that if his focus had been on swimming and his heart been into swimming and his training regimen at a high enough level, the opportunities for him were limitless.''
Even an Olympic medal?
''I remember when I was a freshman coming here; that was the last time the Olympics were on, and I wondered what it would have been like to swim,'' Rubin said.
''Sure, I would have liked to swim in the Olympics,'' he added, ''but if I was a swimmer every Saturday for the whole football season, I would have regretted [not] playing football.''
Most athletes play more than one sport, but the combination of football and swimming is rare. Why?
Contrary to the old saying, size does matter.
''In football, size is often a key component of how successful you're going to be,'' said Bob Krimmel, a member of the Pennsylvania Swimming Hall of Fame. ''In swimming ... you tend to want people to be sleeker and obviously not carrying extra weight because you're going to have to pull it through the water.''
Krimmel was the women's swimming coach at Penn State for 17 years before taking over as athletic director at St. Francis. He said sprints like the 50 and 100 freestyle require a lot of strength, making it more likely a football player could be successful in those events compared to longer distances.
Sure enough, those were the events in which Rubin beat Phelps.
''Mark probably beat Michael at Michael's worst events, and they were probably Mark's best events,'' Hargis said. ''Michael probably didn't swim the 50 free a whole lot, and that was Mark's best event.
''Michael was never the sprinter, especially at that age because he was training more for the upper-middle distance events. So Michael never had the speed that I'm sure Mark had.''
Rubin's teammates at PSU found about his pool prowess and gave him some good-natured ribbing in preseason camp, while the Olympics were taking place.
''Probably every player and all the coaches and even Coach Paterno asked me why wasn't I in Beijing right now swimming for the Olympics,'' Rubin said.
That's OK, he added. He would much rather be right where he is.
''I definitely wouldn't trade in playing with these guys, working out with these guys and playing for Coach Paterno and going out and playing in front of 100,000 people for anything, even if it was a gold medal,'' Rubin said. ''I'm definitely proud that I chose to play football at Penn State.''
Cory Giger is at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.