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Former swimmer aims for Olympics 24 years later

Dreams die hard, especially athletic ones. The difference is today you can do something about it. "Off The Deep End" by W. Hodding Carter tells the story of Carter's attempt, at age 45, to attain his long-sought goal of swimming in the Olympics.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dreams die hard, especially athletic ones. The difference is today you can do something about it.

That's the upbeat if sometimes exasperating message of "Off The Deep End" (Algonquin Books, 224 Pages, $21.95), by W. Hodding Carter — the story of Carter's attempt at age 45 to attain his long-sought goal of swimming in the Olympics.

"All of us who have ever played a sport with some degree of coordination have, at some point, dreamed of being an Olympian," he writes. "For me, it had been (and clearly still was) an obsession."

Carter starts his story as a swimming obsessed youngster growing up in Mississippi, where he spent most summers churning out endless laps — often as far as 10 miles in a day, the equivalent of running 40 miles.

Despite those efforts, he wasn't all that good. It wasn't until he went to Kenyon College, a small Division III school in Ohio long known as a swimming powerhouse, that he began to bloom as an athlete.

By the time Carter reached his senior year, he qualified for the national championships in three individual races, took second in the 200 freestyle and won gold medals on two relays. More significantly, his 200 time qualified him for the Division I nationals and was close to the Olympic trials qualifying time. He'd come a long way.

But he never quite got the whole way, his odyssey interrupted by a stint in the Peace Corps, the development of his writing career — he's the author of four previous nonfiction books — marriage and children.

An attempt to make the 2004 Athens games at age 41 ended badly, with Carter humiliated at the New England Masters Championships at Harvard University where he collapsed from exhaustion.

Yet he didn't give up the dream. "I refused to believe that just because I was a little older, I couldn't swim as fast as I used to," he writes. "I'd been so close — just some twenty years ago — I had to give it one more try."

Carter's "one more try" includes an amusing account of returning to Kenyon for a week to live in a dorm and work out under his former coach. "Each day was a repeat of the first one, except the pain just got worse and worse," he writes.

Carter's tale resonates in part because of the artistic and athlete heritage he follows. George Plimpton wrote popular accounts of his brief forays into professional sports, including, "Paper Lion: Confessions of a Second-string Quarterback," the 1965 tale of his experience working out with the Detroit Lions.

Among athletes, Mohammad Ali made two valiant but ill-fated attempts to regain his crown after retiring. Olympic discus legend Al Oerter, winner of four consecutive gold medals from 1956 through 1968, came back to throw his personal best in 1976 and finish fourth in the U.S. Olympics trials in 1980 at age 44. And who can forget Jack Nicklaus winning his sixth Master's in 1986 at age 46?

Michael Jordan, of course, made a spectacular second career of unretiring. And then there are the athletes who competed at a high level seemingly forever: soccer's Pele, baseball's Cal Ripken Jr., basketball's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And naturally there's American swimmer Dara Torres, who returned to swimming after a seven-year retirement and won five medals at age 33 at the 2000 Sidney games, then set the American 50 freestyle record last year at age 40.

Carter has staked out a new twist to this old story, which could be dubbed, "So Close, Why Not?" Learning from his mistakes, and deciding to stick to shorter distances, he goes back to the pool one more time.

Our whole lives, "we've been told that aging means getting slower, losing muscle, doing sports only to fight off the inevitable paunch," Carter writes. "We are conditioned by society to 'know' that we can run fast only when we're young. Overcoming that mind-set is, perhaps, the major battle."

Don't be afraid if all this sounds uncomfortably obsessive. Carter doesn't shy away from the ugly side of his dreams and writes candidly about the toll his driven personality took on his marriage, including a brief separation.

This is where the exasperation sets in: It's hard at times not to dismiss the whole enterprise as the selfish quest of an aquatic Don Quixote. Except that, by the book's conclusion — which is to say, this spring — Carter's time in the 50 freestyle is one-tenth of a second off his best time as a college swimmer, when he was, as we recall, almost an Olympic qualifier. Maybe he really does have the stuff.

What redeems Carter and makes his book so rewarding is his obvious love not just for the sport of swimming but for his family. As his drive for the Olympics evolves, Carter takes a full-time job as aquatics director at his local YMCA and becomes head coach of the Y's swim team; with its long hours and overly involved parents, it is not a job for the faint-hearted.

At a state championship meet in Maine, his daughter, Eliza, has a breakthrough race that brings everything into the proper focus.

"I'd been enjoying the days' races but her happiness made everything complete," Carter writes. "I was lucky enough to have three of my own kids enjoying the same sport that had been, and still was, such a large part of my life."