As her teammates jumped into the Augustus G. Brown Swimming Pool's water for a clinic with 2000 Olympian Neil Walker, Glacier Swim Club swimmer Kim Miles couldn't help herself.
Miles, 12, stopped by a poolside table where Walker's gold and silver medals were displayed, picked up the gold medal and draped it around her neck.
"It's really heavy," Miles said, as she ran her fingers over the medal's engraving.
"I've never seen a gold medal before," added Cayla Pook, 9, of Sitka, a member of the Baranof Barracudas Swim Club. "I got a bronze medal in Ketchikan (at the Southeast Championships)."
Walker was in town this weekend as part of the annual Olympic Swimmer Invitational, a clinic and swim meet the larger Southeast swim clubs take turns hosting each year. The meet gives young swimmers a chance to meet a recent Olympian, which the local coaches hope will inspire the local kids to get better in the sport.
"For some kids it does a lot," said Tex Doherty, the coach of Petersburg's Viking Swim Club. "It makes a big difference, especially with Neil talking about setting goals. Hopefully the kids will come out of this with some goals that will carry them through the next season."
Even though he's not competing right now, Juneau-Douglas High School senior Jake Kreuzenstein said he was paying attention to Walker while sitting in his lifeguard's chair during the meet and clinic. Over the years, Kreuzenstein has seen other Olympians come through town, such as Tom Jager and Chad Carvin.
"Totally, you get inspired," said Kreuzenstein, who helped the Crimson Bear boys swim team share a state title in November. "To be in here with these guys and seeing what they've accomplished, I always thought I got a lot out of it. I'm not swimming now - I'm 18 and I have to focus on getting ready for college - but I'm still paying attention. I feel pretty lucky to have seen these guys. I've seen other Olympians at meets down south, but going somewhere and seeing an Olympian is a lot different than having them come to you."
Walker, 26, grew up in Verona, Wis., but now lives in Austin, Texas, where he trains with University of Texas coach Eddie Reese. Walker is one of the most-decorated swimmers in the history of the Texas Longhorns, earning 25 all-American awards, winning back-to-back NCAA titles in the 100-yard backstroke and setting the NCAA record of 19.08 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle. He was the Swimmer of the Year at the 1997 NCAA Championships, despite being slowed by a broken hand on the second day of competition.
In 2000, Walker made the U.S. Swim Team and headed to the Sydney Olympics. He won a gold medal in the 400-meter medley relay, a silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay, finished fifth in the 100-meter freestyle and was sixth in the 100-meter backstroke. Earlier this month, Walker won the 100-meter freestyle in a meet with Australia called the Duel in the Pool. He is in training for the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, and hopes to make the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
"I didn't swim well at the Olympics," Walker told the swimmers during Sunday's clinic (there was a separate clinic on Saturday). "If I would have swum my best times, I would have been third in my individual events."
During the clinic, the young swimmers asked Walker all kinds of questions - about the Olympic Village, his favorite foods (he has a sweet tooth, but his favorite healthy food is a smoothie with everything in it, including spinach, carrots and oranges), what kind of grades he had (a 3.5 GPA in high school, but he had to study really hard), what other sports he played (soccer and hockey as a kid, golf, cycling, ultimate Frisbee and fishing now) and what he does for his job (swimming). Walker then took the kids into the pool and demonstrated some strokes.
While he was in town, Walker said he and his wife, April, got to go fishing and his wife caught a salmon on Sunday morning. Walker's Web site, http://www.swimwalker.com, has several photos of him catching bass in Texas. Walker said he plans to put the salmon photo with the other fishing photos.
"I love fishing," Walker said. "In Texas, all we have is bass, though."
David Maker, the new coach of Juneau's Glacier Swim Club, arrived in town earlier in the week and said he was impressed with the program. Maker is from Michigan, but most recently was an assistant coach for Wooster College in Ohio, an NCAA Division III school.
"First and foremost, everyone's given me a warm welcome," Maker said. "There's a lot of talented kids here. In the Midwest, we might arrange for an Olympian to come in for our own team, but never a regional thing like this. I had one day to work with the team before Neil got here, and he said some of the same things I said. Instant credibility.
"The single-most thing I've learned about up here is it's a swimming community and all the other coaches help each other and the kids have friends from other teams. In Michigan and Ohio, the coaches are more competitive and you're worried they might steal your kids away. I wish it was like this in more places."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.
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