The San Diego CIF Championships were towards the end of the school year. I qualified in the 100 Fly and as a member of Fallbrook’s medley relay team. From a team of about thirty boys and thirty girls, less than a dozen total traveled to CIF. This included all of the year-round swimmers and a few of the real standouts from the water polo team who happened to have some pure speed. We sat out under a big beige tarp on the deck at Mt. Carmel High School, which had by far the fastest high school pool I’d ever seen. The competition facility was eight lanes wide by twelve feet deep and had new-looking double-lane lines and deep aluminum gutters all the way around. These things reduced wake and therefore drag, ensuring a smooth, glassy surface for competition. Mt. Caramel also had a separate warm-up pool, which was shallow and maybe four lanes across, though this was not particularly unusual. Fallbrook’s competition pool had only six lanes, but even we had a separate diving well.
I qualified for the finals with a decent morning session swim in the 100 Butterfly, going something like :56 and setting myself up with either the fifth or sixth seed. This wasn’t bad. I was well into “AAA” territory, and qualifying for the finals as a high school freshman was a decent accomplishment, even for a reasonably talented year-round swimmer. As with the NVSL, once you got to a certain level, everyone was swimming year-round. That’s what it took just to be in the conversation.
I finished my preliminary 100 Fly and warmed down before heading back to the tarps where we’d set up our little base camp. The other kids were either loose or tight, joking nervously or fretting under the pressure of a true championship meet. A couple of the girls were watching the boys, and if they cared about how they swam at all, I couldn’t see it. They were talking about this boy, Mike, who was a couple of years older—and one of fastest kids in San Diego County. Though he swam for another school, everyone knew Mike. Not only was he obscenely talented, he was also—famously—an asshole. He carried so much attitude that it smoked off of him like fog from dry ice, keeping people at a distance. Despite this, one of our girls had a crush on him, a cute blonde who’d recently made her first Junior National cuts.
“But how can you like Mike?” the blonde’s friend asked, leaning into her and looking scandalized. “He’s such a jerk. I mean, he’s just so… so arrogant!”
The blonde looked thoughtful for a minute and considered it. She looked off into the distance, and a wistful look came into her eyes. “Mike is winner,” she said at last. “Sure, he’s arrogant, but I like arrogant guys. You take a guy like that, a guy who’s proud, and he’ll do whatever it takes. You’ll never see Mike off sulking in a corner somewhere. He goes to practice every day, and he works his ass off. Because that’s what it takes to win. Mike’s pride won’t let him have it any other day. I like that. I think it’s attractive.”
At this point, they caught me eavesdropping. The blonde turned to me and laughed, poking me in the chest with her finger. “You got that, Dan? You’ve got to be arrogant!”
I smiled and thought, You’re damned right I do.
I sank back into my headphones, Jeff Ross’s influence having long since established a decidedly hard rock/hair metal presence in my selection of mix-tapes. As a high school freshman, I listened to Europe’s “The Final Countdown” before races, or cuts off of OU812. When Living Color released “Cult of Personality”, it became the anthem of my sprint butterfly. The song’s syncopated hard rock beats exactly matched the rhythm of my stroke at full power. I settled back into exactly this and let the hours pass.
The morning session gave way to afternoon. With nothing but consuls and finals17, the actual championship contests flew by. Before I knew it, I was in the water, warming up for the finals of the 100 Butterfly.
I felt good. Fast but loose. Destiny lay just around the corner.
We stepped up to the blocks, and I looked around. I stood five-foot-ten and weighed all of one hundred forty-five pounds. This was tiny for a swimmer, especially a butterflier. I saw then that I was the youngest kid in the race by fully eighteen months. The men around me looked like Norse gods. Like they could have summoned lightning or commanded the winds. To a man, they had me by at least three inches and maybe twenty-five pounds apiece.
How can I compete with that?
I was proud, though. I wasn’t quite the asshole that a guy like Mike could be, but I’d busted my ass every day in practice, and I knew that I was good. Damned if I wasn’t going to go out like a winner. As the girl said, pride would allow nothing less.
We took our marks, held, and then the buzzer sounded. We were off. I took it out fast but loose, just as Mr. Malone had taught me, and when the field threatened to get away from me, I went to full power and fought back—hard. I refused to let those giants intimidate me. I held my own instead, against everyone. I held the pace with the champions of swimming’s heartland, all of them save a single monstrous boy who surged ahead at the very end to win by a bodylength. We touched, and I looked up. I was fifth. This was an outstanding showing for a high school freshman in his first true championship meet.
I checked my time. :55.5.
Fifty-five! That was a “AAAA” time!
I bounced out of the water in an instant, buoyed by emotions I could barely comprehend. Glory! I threw my arms into the air like a gladiator whose opponent lay bleeding on the Coliseum sand. That “AAAA” time put me into the sport’s elite ranks. I was among the best of the best. I was actually one of them. I had arrived. Somehow, through all those months of excruciating, relentless effort, I’d become the very best version of myself that I possibly could be. I’d done that, and it was real.
“Yes!” I screamed. “YES! YES!”
I had done it!
A life-altering moment. Not just because I’d reached one of the true pinnacles of my sport, but also because it redefined the limits of what I thought I could really achieve. My dreams changed in an instant. My entire conception of myself changed. In less than a year, I’d gone from an unremarkable 1:02 in the 100 Butterfly to an elite :55.5. This wasn’t some fantasy vision of success or self-delusion. I’d actually done it. The Junior National cut time sat relatively close at :52, and if I could make that within the next year—an outstanding achievement for a boy because we tend to mature so much slower than do the girls—then the Olympic Trials looked like a truly realistic possibility someday. Who knew how far I could go or what the future might hold?
I couldn’t wait to find out.
* * *
I turned fifteen a few weeks later and sank back into the “AAA” ranks. I was still a badass on a strictly regional level, but I was no longer amongst my age group’s truly elite. It didn’t matter. I’d outgrown age group letter rankings. They were no longer relevant. Schools didn’t care that I was a freshman, nor did the swimmers against whom I competed. My next steps would take me into a wider world. I needed to make Junior National cuts. At Juniors, swimmers raced 18-and-under. That was my future. I needed to get into the water with the very best kids in the country and see who would prove to be the better man.
We drove out to Vista one night just before school let out, and my mom dropped me off. A strong Santa Ana wind blew out of the desert, bringing with it scorching hundred-degree heat. The schools in San Diego County weren’t air conditioned back in the late 1980s, and conditions were miserable. In desperation, the middle school where we held our practices threw its students into our pool, clothes and all. The water turned black and muddy, and though the school maintenance staff had since shocked the water with chlorine, the pool’s filters hadn’t even begun to clean up the mess. Coach Malone threw his up hands in frustration and told us all to go home. But we couldn’t go home; half our parents had just dropped us in the parking lot without even getting out of their cars.
Jeff rallied us, and we piled into two cars. He drove one, his old beater hatchback. Shirley drove the other, a white BMW she owned by virtue of her parents’ success with a chain of dry-cleaners. Jeff put on Van Halen’s “Summer Nights,” and I rode shotgun while he drove us down to the beach a dozen miles away. We stripped off and dove into the water—six or maybe eight of us, all competitive swimmers. We swam out to what seemed like the edge of the horizon, until waves rocked us gently in a little knot out past the break line. We floated. Breakers crashed into the beach while the sun slowly sank behind our backs. The sky came alive with the fire of sunset.
I’d never felt so alive or free.
I looked over at my friend Layne and smiled, and she smiled back. We got to talking, laughing. She had blonde hair that came down to her shoulders, gorgeous green eyes, and a ready smile. The body of a pinup-up model, though I’d never really noticed before. She was a year older, naturally.
I fell in love for the very first time.
17. At a championship meet, the top eight make the finals and then swim to determine an overall champion. The next eight qualify for the “consolation finals” or “consuls”. Depending on the meet’s format, consuls finishers may still score points for their club or school.