FEDERAL WAY, Wash. – Tom Shields is a workhorse. And because he is, Cal’s hopes of repeating as national champs at the NCAA Division I Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships that conclude Saturday have rested squarely on the junior All-American’s shoulders.
It only seems that the announcer at the Weyerhaeuser King Aquatic Center has called his name for every race. Especially Friday, when he wowed the crowd with his magnificent underwater bursts en route to winning the 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard backstroke.
“I hear that when they do the next Flipper movie, he’s going to be the stand-in,” Texas coach Eddie Reese cracked, not knowing just how close that could be. “He is truly amazing. He’s got a gift and he’s real tough and he won’t let you beat him, no matter what.”
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In addition to the individual honors, Shields swam the fly leg of Cal’s second-place 200-yard medley relay that kicked off the night and then led off the Bears’ 800 free relay that finished second but broke the school record by five seconds.
It left Cal with 379.5 points. Texas, which won that last relay, has 343.5. It’s shaping up to be a big-time Saturday that will see Shields, the junior from Huntington Beach, Calif., as the top seed in the 200 fly. He’ll also swim a leg on the meet-ending 400 free relay in which Cal is also top seeded that will likely decide the team title.
“What’s really cool about this meet is we’re not relying on emotions as much. We’re relying on being us,” said Shields, whose Bears are trying to win back-to-back for the first time since Auburn won from 2003-07. “That’s making for more consistency and that’s really cool to see happen on our team.”
“We had a good morning and came back and had a great night,” Cal coach Dave Durden said.
The key was Shields, who entered the meet as a six-time NCAA champion. He repeated as the 100 back champ and regained the title he won in 2010.
“He’s got a lot of swims here,” Durden said. “ … He loves this, though. It’s never like, ‘Aw, gotta go swim again.’ It’s like, ‘Man I love racing.’ His quote is ‘I just want to swim fast.’ He does it in his Southern California Huntington Beach accent. He’s a good kid.”
That’s not lost on his competitors.
“He’s awesome and a great kid,” Arizona coach Eric Hansen said. “I got to know him in China at World University Games. He’s a lighthearted kid who races hard, is versatile and I really like his perspective on the sport. He’s tough. Really tough.”
Cal’s Will Hamilton gushed praise for his teammate.
“I swim butterfly with him and I’m a freshman and he’s kind of been my mentor,” Hamilton said. “He’s a guy who has a special ability and one of the things he does is he looks at every single detail in swimming. Everything from hand position to his start. He just breaks down everything. In something like swimming the devil is in the details.”
Seriously. Consider his observance of dolphins. After all, it’s the dolphin kick that swimmers do as they come off the wall, especially in the butterfly when on their stomachs and in the backstroke on their backs. Sounds simple, but:
“I’ve watched a lot of videos of people swimming and I was watching an Animal Planet on dolphins swimming and I know it sounds kooky and so weird,” Shields said with a laugh. That’s because one time this season he stayed up almost all night looking at the computer.
“I watched dolphins swimming for like six hours of different dolphins swimming on YouTube. And the next morning I tried to do it and I think I learned something from it. It’s a whole different movement and they are the most efficient swimmers out there, so you might as well learn from them.”
Durden was an assistant at Auburn from 2002-05. After two years as head coach at Maryland, he took the helm at Cal. Shields didn’t have the Bears in his sights, but Durden went after him.
“I talked to Tom after racing in July [before his senior year of high school]. He didn’t have a very good Olympic Trials. We talked, he had an interest, we kept talking through the summertime and finally we were able to arrange a visit. And it was after he visited Cal that he thought it was the place for him.”
It’s worked out pretty well, of course, especially Friday. In the 100 fly, “It was fun. It was cool to win,” Shields said. “I think I tied my best time ever (44.76).”
He won that event by more than a second. In the backstroke, Shields (44.86) had a satisfying victory in beating crosstown rival David Nolan of Stanford (45.53).
“He’s a really fast backstroker but in a completely different way than I am. He’s just unbelievably fast on top of the water and it was cool to play that cat-and-mouse game. I just ended up ahead at the right point.”
Evidently, the dolphin-watching paid off, because Shields simply exploded off the wall on the last turn and was like a torpedo as he blazed to the finish.
“It was a really cool turn,” he said.
Shields had a long day, but said he was recovering well.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” he said. “We’ve got 12 hours to get a little sleep.”
Provided he didn’t stay up all night watching dolphins videos.