Derek Gibb is a commercial fisherman with his own piscine qualities. In other words, Derek Gibb swims like a fish.
Gibb, a 1999 Petersburg High School graduate, is in Long Beach, Calif., this week for the U.S. Olympic trials, where he's hoping to earn an August trip to Athens, Greece. The Olympic trials opened on Wednesday, and Gibb's first event is today's 100-meter backstroke. But that's just a tune-up swim before his main event, the 50-meter freestyle on Monday. If Gibb, 23, is one of the top two finishers in his events, he will become the first swimmer from Alaska to qualify for the Olympics.
"Things are going pretty good," Gibb said during a phone interview last week from Auburn University, where he's been training and where he recently completed his collegiate eligibility. "I'm enjoying the taper life. I'm feeling good in the water."
Gibb, who has four classes left to complete a degree in criminology, is coming off a college season where he helped Auburn win its second straight NCAA Championship in March.
He was one of the leaders of "The Four Horsemen," Auburn's unofficial world record-setting relay quartet. The Four Horsemen posted the fastest times ever recorded in the 200-yard and 400-yard freestyle relay events, but the marks don't count as official world records since the four swimmers aren't all from the same country. Gibb also helped win an NCAA title in the 200 medley relay, and he finished in fifth place in the 50 free.
Gibb, whose parents now live in Juneau, also gained some international experience in June, when he competed in two events of the four-meet Mare Nostrum series in Europe. In Barcelona, Spain, Gibb reached the podium with a third-place finish in the 50-meter backstroke. He also competed in the Mare Nostrum stop in Rome, where his best finish was ninth in the 50 free.
One of the highlights of Gibb's European trip was being able to swim against 50-meter freestyle world record holder Alexander Popov of Russia in the 50 free preliminaries. Popov, at 6-foot-7, is one of the few swimmers close to Gibb's 6-9 height.
"He pretty much dusted me in the prelims," said Gibb, who had his picture taken with Popov in the cool-down pool in Barcelona. "I had a video of Alexander Popov and on it they said the only way Popov's record could be broken was by someone taller than him. Height is supposed to help make you faster because you get more distance per stroke."
When he was in high school, Gibb set the state's current 100-yard freestyle record and was the state's outstanding swimmer as a senior. He also played center on Petersburg's basketball team, helping the Vikings reach a couple of Class 3A state tournaments and getting the chance to play against current Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Carlos Boozer of Juneau-Douglas High School in Southeast Championship games. Boozer will play basketball for the United States at the Athens Olympics.
Gibb went to Golden West (Junior) College in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he flirted with the national junior college record in the 50-yard freestyle. He earned his first trip to the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2000.
"He'll go to the Olympics in 2004, there's no doubt if he sticks with it," then-Golden West coach Steve Bentley, a former world-record holder in the breaststroke events, said of Gibb before the 2000 Olympic Trials.
"We just want the Olympic Trials to give him a sense of destiny," NBAC coach Mike Ruffner said. "In the next four years, Derek has the tools to be a national champion."
Gibb transferred to Auburn, where he took a year off to get his academics in order and to try and clean up his swimming technique. A casual student in high school, Gibb has been earning mostly A's and B's at Auburn. Gibb worked with Auburn coach David Marsh to clean up flaws in his stroke that are magnified by his size.
During his sophomore year at Auburn, Gibb took seventh place in the individual 50 free with a 19.92. Last year, Gibb took fourth place in the 50 free with a 19.51. He also earned a trip to the World University Games in South Korea, where he represented the United States for the first time.
This year's NCAA meet took place using a 25-meter swimming pool over the usual 25-yard pool, but Gibb still had a relay leg time of 20.76 over 50 meters. He took fifth in the individual free with a 21.69, which was won by teammate George Bovell in 21.10.
The Olympic Trials will use a 50-meter pool, which is slower because swimmers don't get the kick from their flip turns they get in a 25-meter pool. When he was in Rome, Gibb set a personal record of 23.16 in the 50 free in a 50-meter pool. He said Bovell's coach from Trinidad & Tobago, Anil Roberts, has been helping refine his technique. Gibb said he doesn't expect to make the Olympic team in the backstroke, since he didn't swim it for four years.
"There's a lot more pressure (at the Olympic trials), and that's why I'm swimming the 100 back, to relax," Gibb said. "Most of the (50 free) swimmers are in the 100 free the day before, so they'll be tired. My coaches think I have a better shot at the 50. In the 50 free, anything can happen. Even the best swimmers can have a bad race and finish 12th. It's all fast-twitch muscles.
"I hadn't done the backstroke since high school, and I just started getting serious last year. I'm hoping for sure to make the top 16 and my goal is to make the top eight. I'm using the 100 back to get into the meet and get used to the crowds. The 50 (free) is our main event. We'll have a four-day break to get more prepared to swim a fast 50."
If Gibb doesn't make the Olympic team, he plans to return to Petersburg to fish on the Erika Ann, a Petersburg seiner owned by Charlie Christensen.
"I've been at college four years and I miss it. I just enjoy fishing," Gibb said.
After the summer he plans to resume training for the 2008 Olympics and may become a graduate assistant coach at Auburn. But for now, his goal is swimming in the 2004 Olympics.
"It'll probably take something like 22.20 seconds to make the Olympic team," Gibb said. "My best time is 23.1 in Rome, and I wasn't shaved or tapered. I think I can drop a good half-second or more. I feel better every day."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.
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