How I got started:
In the summer of 1991 I was a force in the 25 free. It was my fourth summer swimming for a summer league team, but this year was different. At the first meet I did something I’d never done before. I won. From the moment I was handed my ribbon, blue became my favorite color. I was hooked and I wanted to win again. I didn’t simply win the next weekend, I started winning every weekend.
I was undefeated through the entire regular season. I went from wanting to win to expecting it. The final meet of the summer, the NWAL All-Star Meet, was my first prelim/final meet. After prelims, I was the top qualifier headed into finals. I had no doubt that I was going to win that night. I truly believed there wasn’t a ten year old in the world that could beat me in the 25 free.
That night I found two kids that could, and did. In fifteen seconds my little ego was shattered.
More than twenty years later and I clearly remember holding back tears as the chubby, curly haired kid that won the race used my podium to step up to his. I desperately wanted a second chance. I wanted to prove that I was the best. I wanted to punch that kid in the face.
There would be no second chance. Not only was the season over, but I would never swim the 25 free again. The next summer I’d be eleven and the 50 would become the shortest event. If I was going to be any good at longer races, I’d need to work. I couldn’t wait another year to get back in the water. That fall I joined a USS team and began year-round training.
How I got started…again:
During my senior year of college, I thought I would walk away from swimming at the end of the year. What I didn’t know at the time, was how consumed by the sport I’d become. I’d dedicated more than time to the sport. Swimming had governed nearly everything in my life from the choices I made to the goals I set. At some point, the sport transformed from something that I did and became part of who I am as a person.
It’s been eight years since I graduated and I still haven’t strayed too far from the pool. Three years ago I joined the 103rd Street Bad Boys, a masters swimming group made up mostly of former water polo players. Although I was only swimming once or twice a week, it was enough to make me want to start racing again. In the fall of 2009 I swam my first short course meet in over five years. I went 21.3 in the 50 and 45.6 in the 100. I was excited about both of these swims, but had no intentions of doing anything more than masters swimming. A year later I went 20.6 and 44.9 a month before my thirtieth birthday. I was shocked by these results. This time I started thinking.
I went home and looked up the Olympic trials cuts in the long course events. The 100 cut of 51.49 seemed a bit out of reach, but the 50 cut of 23.49 seemed possible. In May of 2011, I called my coach of twenty years, Travis Sandifer, and told him I’d like to register for USA Swimming. He signed me up for the Senior Circuit Champs meet in Austin. The meet would be in July which gave me two months to prepare.
My heart was pounding when I stepped on the deck of the Texas Swimming Center. The same pool that had been my training home for five years seemed foreign to me. I asked myself if the pool had grown. I thought there was no way fifty meters could be that long. I looked at the other swimmers and wondered if I’d made a mistake. I had no idea what kind of times I could put up in a long course pool. I began to doubt myself. I was sure I was going to look like a total idiot for showing up.
The next morning I swam the 50. I got a good start and I was swimming fast up to somewhere around the forty meter mark. I felt my legs get heavy and I started sinking in the water. I finished and I looked up at the score board. When I saw 23.55 I was relieved. I wouldn’t look like an idiot after all, at least not until I swam the 100. Travis and I discussed ways to drop the 0.06 seconds that night in the finals. Unfortunately, being the last man off the blocks was not part of the strategy.
That night I went 23.80. The 100 would now become my best chance.
51.50 was displayed on the scoreboard after I finished the 100 in the prelims. I couldn’t have gotten any closer to the cut without making it. This wasn’t the first time I’d been off by 0.01. In 1998, I was going for my first junior national cut. I went 24.70 in a long course 50 free. The cut was 24.69. In 2000, I was trying to qualify for the Sydney trials when I went 20.50 in a short course 50. The cut was 20.49. In both instances, I ended up making a cut in the 100.
I ate lunch with my parents that day wondering if I was going to have enough time to recover for the finals. I’d swum slower in the finals of the 50 earlier in the meet. Swimming the 100 twice would be even tougher. That night I stood behind the blocks and stopped thinking about 51.49. Just like old times, I waved to my parents and started smiling. Right before the starter blew the ready whistle, an old teammate, Ian Crocker, walked behind me and said, “Let’s go Tony!” I felt at home again and there was no place I’d rather be than swimming this race.
When I touched the wall, the scoreboard read 51.13. I’d be chasing the Olympic dream one more time.