Young swimmer to test waters at national meet

Skill: A talented Columbia athlete prepares for the next level of competition.

Howard At Play

March 18, 2001|By Suzanne Whitmore | Suzanne Whitmore,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At an hour when most people are still asleep, a tall, muscular figure arrives at the Indoor Swim Center in Columbia's Wilde Lake village to repeat yet again a practice regimen that began five years ago, when he was 13.

The dark winter morning, laced with flurries, does not deter Christopher Pearson, 18, a Howard High senior who lives in the Glenmont subdivision between Columbia's Phelps Luck and Thunder Hill neighborhoods, from his rigorous training.

He is there with a specific goal: developing fitness and skill that could earn him a winning time at the next level in his sport - his first USA Swimming Senior National Spring Meet at the University of Texas in Austin.

This meet, to be held from March 27 through April 1, is important for all participants, particularly those like Pearson who are trying to leave the legions of age-group swimmers and build names as elite athletes.

Last year, the best Senior National swimmers were picked for the U.S. Olympic team. This year's best could earn Olympic-level training at Colorado Springs, Colo., in June, or be chosen for U.S. teams that will compete in July's annual World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, or the following month in the 2001 World University Games in Beijing.

"Chris Pearson is one of the top two swimmers in Maryland," says his coach, Columbia Clippers director Ken Spencer; the other is Towson's teen Olympian, Michael Phelps. Pearson is "a machine - the best swimmer the Clippers have ever produced."

Spencer started as an assistant coach with the Clippers six years ago and is in his second year as head coach. His first assignment with the Clippers was coaching the 12-year-old boys' team, which included a not-so-remarkable Chris Pearson.

Chris "didn't do anything special until he was 15," Spencer recalls. "Since then, he's gone in only one direction, and that's up."

At 16, Pearson's times ranked him 13th in the country in the 1,000-yard freestyle. At 17, he made USA Swimming's "Top 16" list of best young American swimmers. And now, his times have qualified him for nationals in two weeks - a step that most competitive swimmers only dream of and one that few Howard countians have taken.

Columbia clubs have produced perhaps 15 swimmers who have tried senior-national competition, the best known being Tami Paumier, says Barbara Bellamy, who coached the Clippers' predecessor club, the Corsairs. Paumier, at 15, won a gold medal in breaststroke at the 1979 Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico but saw an Olympic opportunity vanish because of the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Games over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Pearson, who started swimming with the Clippers when he was 9, attributes his success to a growth spurt at age 15 and, more important, motivation from Spencer.

"I started improving the year after Ken started coaching me," says the quiet young swimmer.

He has qualified to swim the 1,000-yard freestyle at the Senior National meet. And for this weekend's Spring Eastern Sectionals, a regional meet one tier below the national meets, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Pearson qualified to compete in butterfly and backstroke, as well as the freestyle. He is considered an exceptional freestyler who also swims excellent times in butterfly and backstroke.

Pearson practices 20 hours a week - three mornings and six afternoons. Before he enters the water, he and teammates undergo "deck training" that includes stretching, as well as throwing and lifting heavy medicine balls to develop strength and explosiveness. At the beginning of the year, he also ran, cycled and trained with weights. In the water, "warming up" might consist of swimming 600 yards - before many more hundreds devoted to specific strokes.

This 6-foot-3, 190-pound athlete has an intense determination to succeed, says his coach.

"He's quiet, relentless in training, a good example to the younger ones. Chris is like Cal Ripken - a leader by example. He just goes out and does the job."

Swimming has meant sacrificing some other activities, Pearson acknowledges. "By the sixth grade, I had stopped playing soccer and baseball," he says. "I have given up most extracurricular activities at school, except Math Team."

Pearson also has compiled an outstanding academic record at Howard High: a 1,460 SAT score and a 3.96 grade-point average that ties him for third in Howard's 2001 graduating class.

Spencer predicts that Pearson will be an academic and athletic success in college: "The academics aren't a problem for Chris ... and he's capable of swimming with any [college team]. Swimming is self-empowering, because success comes from what an individual has accomplished. That's a powerful life tool."

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