June 19, 2012
By Amy Whitesall
The USA Swimming Olympic Trials is one of the most competitive meets on earth. Just two swimmers in each event earn a spot on the Olympic team, and the difference between heartbreak and glory is measured in hundredths of a second.
University of Michigan swimmer Davis Tarwater narrowly missed the Olympic team in 2004, finishing fourth at the Trials in his best race, the 200-meter butterfly. When he graduated from U-M in 2006, he decided to give everything he had to a 2008 Olympic bid, and for two years he trained to be the best in the world, with an intensity that left little room in his life for anything else.
"When I look back on it, the pressure was all internal, and there was a ton of it," Tarwater said. "The way I viewed the trials and viewed making the Olympic team had become a profoundly negative place. (I felt like) if I didn't make the team I didn't have anything else."
At the 2008 trials in Omaha, Neb., Tarwater swam what was then the fastest 200 butterfly of his life -- 1:54.46. He finished third.
"It was the most empty feeling in the world," said Tarwater. "I felt like, 'I have nothing. My personhood is based on this sport, and I wish I'd enjoyed the process,' it was like, 'I failed and I don't know what to do next.'"
But from those depths, Tarwater began an unlikely journey -- one that took him out of the pool for most of a year, but has led him back to Omaha yet again for one more shot at a place on the U.S. Olympic team. A stronger, faster Tarwater will compete June 25-July 2 in the 2012 USA Swimming Olympic Trials. An older, wiser one will keep it in perspective no matter what happens.
"Frankly I don't have to have this anymore," he said. "And lifting that burden has allowed me to have the level of success I think I always could have had."
As a child, Tarwater loved the water. Loved the way it felt on his skin, the weightlessness of his body in water, the way it felt as it moved around him. He seemed to know instinctively how to propel himself forward through it.
His mother, Mary, took him to a pool near their Knoxville, Tenn., home when he was four years old, and at first Davis was reluctant to put his face in the water. His teacher suggested Mary leave the pool for a while, warning, "He's not going to like this."
When she returned 15 minutes later, Davis was swimming all over the place. By age seven he'd started competing.
"There was real purity about it," he said. "It was like a magical feeling I had, and it's almost like in the last few months I've come full circle with that seven year old who just wanted to be in the water."
But swimming is a uniquely demanding sport, and by the time Tarwater was 14 he'd jumped in with both feet, swimming the tough two-a day workouts that continued through high school and college and beyond. He went to his first Olympic Trials at 15, and has been on nine of the last 12 U.S. National Teams. Some criticize parents whose kids compete at a high level, suggesting they're giving up their childhood. Tarwater thinks that's ludicrous.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," he says.
In 2008, Ann Arbor was one of the hottest locales in swimming. The elite team at Club Wolverine included Tarwater and Olympians Michael Phelps, Peter Vanderkaay and Eric Vendt, training under Phelps' longtime coach Bob Bowman and Michigan legend Jon Urbanchek.
It was a rare convergence of great talent -- a special time and place. And Tarwater was too busy driving himself crazy to appreciate it.
Looking back, he can see how he micromanaged everything he could control and fretted over the things he couldn't. Tarwater was the second-fastest butterfly specialist in the country -- behind Phelps -- going into the 2008 trials. All signs seemed to point to Beijing. But in the final, Gil Stovall swam the race of his life, and Tarwater found himself once again on the outside looking in.
"It was almost surreal," Mary Tarwater said. "He was so close. He was right there. It was almost like he'd been hit in the head, and it took him a couple months to shake it off."
Tarwater went home to Knoxville, where he started swimming with University of Tennessee coach Matt Kredich and peeling back the layers of his relationship with swimming, his relationship with God, and his sense of self. He had some help from one of the few people on earth who knew just how he felt.
Mary Tarwater's brother, Richmond Flowers Jr., was the fastest 110-meter hurdler in the world in the spring of 1968. The question at the time wasn't whether Flowers was going to the Olympics, but whether he would come home with a gold medal or a silver. Two months before the Olympic Trials, he suffered a massive hamstring tear that effectively ended his track and field career.
Flowers went on to play four years in the National Football League, but once he turned pro, the Olympics were lost to him forever. Even today, he won't watch the track and field competition on television.
Davis had always looked up to his uncle, and that connection helped him understand what it took to be an elite athlete. But their relationship took on a new depth after the 2008 Trials.
"He was one of the only people that really waited (to talk to me)," Tarwater said. "I think he knew the pain I was feeling and the disappointment I was feeling, because he felt same thing. He knew no matter what he said it wasn't going to make it any better."
Rather than offer comfort, Flowers offered context.
"I believe there is a God who created this, and it ain't no accident. He's got a plan," said Flowers. "I told (Davis) maybe it just wasn't the right thing for you. Maybe you weren't ready to handle it. Would you have been arrogant? We see people who achieve those heights and can't handle it. For some it's a curse. Would he be the man he is today (if he'd made the team)?" Flowers asked.
Within a couple of months Tarwater started looking at other possibilities for his life. He applied to some public policy graduate schools (this too runs in the family -- Tarwater's grandfather, Richmond Flowers Sr., was attorney general of Alabama). And, at a friend's suggestion, he sent some work he'd done as an undergrad to the University of Oxford on the chance it might pique the interest of their Latin American Studies department. Three strong recommendations from Michigan later, he was headed for Oxford.
For the first time he could remember, Tarwater took swimming out of the equation. He went to classes, studied, got coffee, ate things just because they looked good. He explored Europe.
And this time he really appreciated his extraordinary surroundings. His classmates came from elite universities all over the world. Many spoke several languages and brought an enlightening perspective to world events. There were people who'd created their own non-government organizations as undergraduates; people who took high-ranking positions in their countries' governments after graduation.
Coaxed back into the pool by the swim team at Oxford, Tarwater carved himself a place in the 300-year history of Oxford-Cambridge varsity matches, earning MVP honors and the prestigious Oxford Blue jacket, an honor given only to the university's top athletes.
"Being surrounded by the caliber of student there really opened my eyes to what's possible for the future of this world, and for myself, personally," Tarwater said. "To be around that kind of exceptional person was even more eye-opening than my classes. In many ways, I felt pretty well out of my league, but I became stronger and more confident and more well-rounded."
At Oxford, Tarwater gained a new appreciation for his Michigan experience, and for U-M's stature among the world's universities. When someone would ask him where he went to school, Tarwater would answer, "Michigan," and they would reply, "One of the great American schools."
"I didn't realize at the time how important and valuable the Michigan experience was going to be for the rest of my life," said Tarwater. "When I was purporting to be a Michigan man in 2006, I didn't know how much of that seed would grow into the Michigan Man I am in 2012."
One more shot
The Davis Tarwater who returned to the States in 2010 brought a broader worldview, a new confidence, a sense of his place in the world. All his nagging injuries had healed. Life after swimming was beginning to take shape, but Tarwater realized there was something he wanted to do first.
"I realized that not only is there life left for me in swimming, there's also a desire to come back (to the Olympic Trials) and do it the right way -- with nothing to lose, a positive message and a thrill for the process."
Tarwater moved to Charlotte, N.C., to train with former Auburn coach David Marsh for one more meet -- or maybe two. When it's done, he'll move onto the next thing with no regrets.
But it's not done yet.
Marsh's training philosophy, more power-oriented than that of Bowman or Urbanchek, seems a good fit for Tarwater's 28-year-old body. He says he's more confident than he's ever been. In December, he clocked a 1:51.90 in the 200 butterfly at the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool.
With Phelps and former Michigan swimmers Dan Madwed and Tyler Clary competing for Olympic spots in the 200 butterfly, Tarwater knows his race will be loaded. He also knows worrying about the other guys doesn't help him swim faster.
"I still swim the 100 and 200, and I'm doing things based on strength and power now that I used to do on raw endurance," he said.
The training is as intense as ever, and Tarwater holds himself to a high professional standard -- training and taking care of his body currently constitute a full-time job. But what happens at the pool does not define him now.
"Missing the Olympics in 2008 was the best thing that's ever happened in my whole life," he says, "I would not have gone to Oxford; I would not have invested in my own personhood; I would not have learned to invest in other people. I would have just kept going.
"I realize now that it's a gift. Being a professional athlete is a gift; being able to chase an Olympic dream is a gift. I made it a misery. It doesn't have to be a misery."