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Once in a lifetime: Missoula's Cromwell has eyes on Beijing
Once in a lifetime: Missoula's Cromwell has eyes on Beijing

America's Olympic hopefuls in swimming pretty much shut it down this week.

At least at the Longhorn Aquatics club in Austin, Texas, the athletes are under strict orders for rest and relaxation leading up to next weekend's U.S. Olympic team trials. That means a break from the normal long hours of swimming and weight lifting to let tired bodies recover in time for the big event.

It's a necessary part of the tapering process - you just have to let go and trust your training - but it can also make for some tedious, boring days. For Missoula native David Cromwell, the waiting is the hardest part.

"I saw 'Kung Fu Panda' by myself … ," Cromwell says of trying to fritter away the final week before heading to Omaha, Neb., for the biggest meet of his life. Without going crazy.

"I guess this is the one time that having a Harvard degree isn't a good thing, but I'm trying not to over analyze it," he jokes. "It's a daily challenge but I'm trying to push it into the back of my head as much as I can."

Probably wise. Cromwell will have a lot on his plate this time next weekend.

The 24-year-old Missoula Hellgate graduate who earned an Ivy League degree in history in 2006 has since become one of the best in the world in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke. By his own admission, however, he is still not a shoo-in to earn a trip to Beijing for August's Summer Games.

That's because only the top two finishers in each race win a spot on the U.S. team and Cromwell is up against six-time gold medalist Michael Phelps as well as world record holders Aaron Peirsol and Ryan Lochte in both of his events.

"Clearly I'm an underdog," he says. "I'm ranked No. 6 in the world, but I also think I'm the third- or fourth-ranked American. The unfortunate thing is, you can come out of the (trials) meet and be third-fastest in the world and not go to the Olympics. But I guess I'm also just arrogant enough to believe on a given day I can swim well enough to make the team."

The real rub is that as many as four or five of the 10 best backstroke swimmers in the world may well all be from America and Cromwell is just one of them. It means the competition in Omaha will be fierce and room for error nonexistent.

Is it pressure-packed? Sure. Fair? Maybe not, but Cromwell has the skills to pull it off. He just needs to have his best race at the best possible moment. He also seems unfazed by the unforgiving nature of the Olympic cut, saying it's just part of the sport and that the public naturally expects to see only the best of the best swimming in the Olympics.

"That's why people are interested in swimming once every four years," Cromwell says. "Your whole career is on the line … the bottom line is, your career in swimming is defined by the Olympics."

Cromwell was still in school and swimming at Harvard during a summer clinic in Texas when an assistant coach at Longhorn Aquatics extended an open invite to train full time with guys like Peirsol and U.S. swimming and diving team coach Eddie Reese.

After graduation, Cromwell says he saw it as an offer he couldn't turn down in good conscience.

Since then he's been living it, spending four hours in the pool every day, with an hour and a half of weight training. It's a lifestyle he admits a lot of guys his age would likely envy but also one he's starting to think of as finite, knowing this year is likely his best shot at making the Olympics.

He and Peirsol have become good friends, with the world record holder in the 100-meter backstroke making two trips to Missoula to help Cromwell with an annual clinic for area swimmers.

Cromwell's personal best in the 100 is 53.81 seconds, less than a second off Peirsol's record time of 52.98, set at the 2007 world championships. That leads some to suspect his best shot at making the Olympics might be in the shorter of the two races, but Cromwell says he feels like he has an equal chance in both.

That one of the main obstacles in his way may be Peirsol - gold medal winner in both backstroke races in 2004 and the only man ever to finish the 100 in under 53 seconds - has not and will never be an impediment to their friendship, he says.

"Aaron is one of my best friends," Cromwell says. "That one minute where we're racing is the only time we see each other as competitors."

In fact, Cromwell credits Peirsol with having a bigger impact on his own performance than perhaps anyone else since he's been with the Texas club. Early on, Cromwell says they decided the better he could get, it would only help in pushing Peirsol to be faster himself.

"Recently, I told him I didn't know if I could ever repay him for how much he's helped me," Cromwell says. "He looked me right in the eye and told me, 'Make the team.' "

Peirsol and Lochte will be in the mix - just as fourth-ranked Americans Randall Ball (100) and Chris DeJong (200) may be - but Phelps is more of a wild card.

Scheduled to swim in nine events at the trials, he's hot on a quest to eclipse Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals, won at the 1972 games in Munich. But there is a chance - a good chance, some say - that the 22 year-old who has become the poster boy for USA Swimming may opt out of one or both backstroke races either before or after the Omaha meet. That's what he did in 2004, when he qualified for the Olympics in the 200 meters, but later withdrew.

The schedule and the sheer physical toll of the multiple events might be too much this time around as well. Not that Cromwell would welcome that. He says he wants to race against the best and besides, he can't concern himself with what Phelps may or may not choose.

"No one knows what Phelps is going to do," Cromwell says. "I don't think he's going to do both (backstroke) races, but you never know … you can't think about that. In the end it's all about what I do for myself."

Even if Phelps scratches the backstroke, Cromwell will still face the equally daunting task of besting either Peirsol or Lochte in one of the two races. He says he has some other personal goals as well, a time picked out that he'd like to beat for his own peace of mind. He's not publicly saying what that time is and notes that the only thing that really matters is who winds up making the team.

"Afterwards you can always pull something out about how much you've accomplished in your career and stuff like that," Cromwell says. "But I'll be crushed if I don't make the Olympic team. It's every kid's dream and this is my last shot."

No matter how the trials and Beijing Games turn out, Cromwell has begun to think about life after swimming. Though his personal Web site advertises that he's looking for international teams to train with in 2009, he admits that he's considering law school at some point. He says he thinks it's inevitable he'll return to Missoula, where sometimes in the summer he prefers swimming in the Clark Fork to "chafing the black line," up and down a lap pool.

The future, though, seems far removed from the next two weeks. For now he's content with focusing on - or trying not to think too much - about what happens when the swimmers hit the water next week in Omaha.

"Coming out of college there was definitely this feeling of need that I had to do it," Cromwell says. "I had to find out how good I was. At the end of next week, I'll know."

Sports writer Chad Dundas can be reached at 523-5361 or by e-mail at chad.dundas@missoulian.com.

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