HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Derek Gibb tells some doozies. Some real whoppers.
The first time I went fishing, I nearly caught a whale, but it got away.
Hey, I played basketball against Carlos Boozer.
Duke's Carlos Boozer? What, Michael Jordan was busy counting his money?
I grew up in a national park in Alaska.
Sure. Or did you just watch too many ``Grizzly Adams'' reruns as a kid?
The punch line?
It's all true.
So when Gibb, a freshman at Golden West College, tells you he is one of the best swimmers in Alaska, it's no fish story. Heck, he's now one of the best community college swimmers in the nation.
That, though, isn't hard to swallow once Gibb steps onto the starting block, uncoils his 6-foot-7 frame, and pounces into the pool.
Gibb, 19, set the state record in the 50-yard freestyle at the South Coast Conference swimming championships last week. He was the favorite in that race Thursday in the California Community College Swimming and Diving Championships at East Los Angeles College, and should figure in the 100 freestyle -- his self-professed best event -- and 100 backstroke.
He doesn't quite fit the image of the die-hard, chlorine-saturated swimmer. You know the type, up at 5 a.m. and in the pool to swim lap after lap. For Gibb, there are days when a 5 a.m. wake-up call would be about two hours too late.
Gibb is a commercial fisherman, working two summer months out of the year. He nearly did get sunk by a whale his first time out. He did trade elbows with Boozer in high school. And he grew up on Petersburg Island, smack-dab in the middle of Tongass National Forest, just south of Juneau.
``When I was set up to room with him, I was expecting some sort of Eskimo or something,'' said Josh Ayers, Gibb's teammate.
Gibbs gets this all the time.
``Northern Exposure,'' he points out, was just a TV show. Petersburg is just another town to be from. So no Iditarod jokes, please.
``I've heard them all,'' he said. ``Usually I get something like, `Do you live in an igloo?'
``My town is just a town in a national park. We have an airport on the island. You can fly to Juneau to Seattle to here. Of course, it takes a long time to get here.''
Not too long.
Gibbs, twice selected all-state in swimming and basketball, caught the eye of a few Division I swim coaches. The problem was that his SAT scores didn't add up. So he was pointed south ... way, way south ... to Golden West. He checked out the college on the Internet and wrote a letter to Rustler coaches.
``I came here last June to check the place out and I just stayed,'' Gibb said.
The clincher? Ask his parents.
``You wake up in the morning and the sun is out,'' said Kim Gibb, who came here this week to watch her son swim in the state meet. ``I think we saw the sun six days in Petersburg last year.''
Shoes of the fisherman
Out-of-state fees to attend Golden West are $140 per unit, with an average of three units per class. Add rent, food, and school supplies, and the monthly bills can take a bite out of the budget.
All Gibb needs, he says, is about two months on the high seas to cover it all.
On July 1, he will be aboard the Aleutian Spirit, along with four other fishermen, to spend three days at sea. That will be followed by two days on shore, and the pattern will be repeated through August.
Two days of fishing can bring in as much as 100,000 pounds of salmon, though 5,000 to 10,000 is the usual haul. Still, even that's quite lucrative.
``When Derek said he was a commercial fisherman, all the guys said, `That's sounds cool,''' Ayers said. ``Then he told them how much money he made, and now some of the guys want him to get them a job up there.''
He is not overpaid.
``We leave about 3 a.m. and after traveling all day, drop anchor for the night,'' said Gibb, who has been a commercial fisherman since he was 14. ``We get up at 3 the next morning and fish until 10 p.m. We go to bed and do the same thing the next day.''
This isn't the half-day boat out of Dana Point Harbor. Gibb mans a 20-foot skiff that is connected to the big boat by a net. The theory is simple: The fish swim into the net, Gibb closes the net and the fish are hauled aboard.
``The first day I was trained on the skiff, we got a gray whale inside the net,'' Gibb said. ``That was pretty intense.''
This, though, is life in Petersburg. There is a cannery on the island and the boats go out nearly year-round, searching for everything from salmon to crab, depending on the season.
Life on the boats isn't a pleasure cruise.
``Those kids work their butts off,'' Kim Gibb said. ``The food is cold and a lot of times there is no time to eat.''
A different kind of net
Gibb's high school had 250 students. His graduating class had 50. He excelled at swimming, but also played basketball and baseball. Road trips were an adventure.
Petersburg's basketball team traveled to a tournament in Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska, where temperatures can drop to 90 degrees below zero. Of course, it was a balmy 80-below during the visit.
Petersburg won the Region V-Class 3A basketball title in Gibb's sophomore and junior years, but lost to Region V-Class 4A winner Juneau-Douglas in the Southeast regional championship game. Juneau's star player was the 6-9, 260-pound Boozer, who was considered by many to be the top high school player in the nation in 1998-99.
``He got right in there and mixed it up with Boozer,'' Kim Gibb said. ``But we lost.''
Gibb got even when he pitched a no-hitter against Boozer's Juneau baseball team later that spring (of his junior year).
``I could definitely beat him in the 50 freestyle, too,'' Gibb said.
Basketball was fun. But being tall wasn't enough to attract college recruiters. Swim coaches, though, had more to look at.
``You can send people a letter saying you're a 6-7 basketball player from Alaska, but no one will really know what you can do,'' Golden West coach Ken Hamdorf said. ``But you send out your time in the 50 freestyle and everyone can judge your ability. His times were around 21 seconds. That raised some eyebrows with us.''
Last week, Gibb raised a few more with a time of 20.32 in the conference final to break the state community college record that had been held by American River's Jim Fairbanks (Stanford) since 1976.
Gibb's time qualified him for the Olympic trials.
``The 100 freestyle is my best event and I'm close to qualifying in that,'' Gibb said. ``I need to swim a 44.89. I've gone 45.50 and I still haven't shaved. This week, I hope.''
Gibb began competitive swimming when he was in the first grade, though it was more to give his mother a small break each day.
``He wanted to be a swimmer really bad, but I thought he was too young,'' Kim Gibb said. ``During Christmas break, he had so much energy I finally said, `Yes, you can swim.'
``He couldn't do the flip turns at first. The coach got him out of the water and had him do somersaults up and down the pool deck. Derek was this tall, scrawny kid. He almost looked anorexic. The first time he tried them was hilarious.''
He didn't take long to develop.
``A couple weeks later, he was in a race and the other kids didn't look too sure of themselves,'' Kim Gibb said. ``But Derek got up on the block and got into position. He was ready.''
Gibb would go on to become the state 50- and 100-yard freestyle champion as a junior at Petersburg. He was the state's 100 free and 100 backstroke champion as a senior.
College coaches noticed. Washington and Northern Arizona were ready to offer scholarships. Gibb hopes some college will still be interested when he's done at Golden West next spring.
Fishing may pay the bills for now, but it is not his career-for-life ambition.
``Sure, there's good money in it,'' Gibb said. ``But it's not something I want to do the rest of my life.''
And everything Gibb says is the absolute truth. ...
... well, almost.
Said Hamdorf: ``He starts complaining about the water being too cold when we train, and everyone laughs.''
Juneau Empire ©2014. All Rights Reserved.