Derek Gibb may not earn a spot on the U.S. Swim Team during this week's Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, but the experience could go a long way in propelling him toward the 2004 Olympics.
A 19-year-old swimmer at Golden West (Junior) College in Huntington Beach, Calif., Gibb is only two years removed from earning top swimmer honors at the Alaska high school championships. He's still young and the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials will be his first true national-caliber meet. So a trip to the 2000 Summer Olympics next month in Sydney, Australia, is unlikely.
But Gibb's coaches look at the 1999 Petersburg High School graduate, whose family just moved to Juneau, and they see a swimmer with lots of unrealized potential. They think that by the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, Gibb could be a dominant swimmer in the vein of record-breaking sprinters Matt Biondi (of the United States) or Alexander Popov (of Russia).
``He'll go to the Olympics in 2004, there's no doubt if he sticks with it,'' said Steve Bentley, Gibb's coach at Golden West and a former world record-holder in the breaststroke events who missed out on the Olympics.
``Personally, I believe he's the best 19-year-old athlete in the country,'' said Mike Ruffner, the coach of Newport Beach Aquatics Club where Gibb has been training this summer. ``All the gentlemen he's swimming against have been there before. We just want the Olympic Trials to give him a sense of destiny.''
Gibb's coaches said their goals are for Gibb to meet the Olympic Trials qualifying times for meters (Gibb qualified for the 100-meter freestyle and the 50 free using the less-stringent yards qualifying times). And they want him to come out of the Trials motivated to keep training for the 2004 Olympics. Of course, they wouldn't mind him earning a surprise berth to Sydney, although he's considered a longshot since only the top two swimmers in each event qualify for the 26-man U.S. Olympic Swim Team.
``I had no intention at all of doing it (making the Olympic Trials), it was pretty much a surprise,'' Gibb said. ``If I don't make the team this year, I'll come back in 2004.''
The coaches see too many things holding Gibb back now, and most of them have to do with his relative inexperience. Gibb still remembers when his swimming heroes were Petersburg High swimmers Aaron Dean and Shawn Klosterman, who both went on to college success in the sport.
The Olympic Trials will be held in a 50-meter pool and until this summer Gibb had never competed in a pool that long. Nearly all of his competition and training has been in a 25-yard pool, which Ruffner said can cause a mental barrier as the swimmer adjusts to the longer pool. And, this is Gibb's first year where he's truly dedicated himself to his swimming. In past years Gibb played basketball and baseball, and he also regularly took three months off from swimming to go commercial fishing. In fact, Gibb didn't even swim as a sophomore in high school so he could devote himself to basketball.
That year of total dedication to swimming led to some incredible time drops for Gibb, who won two individual California state junior college titles in the 50-yard freestyle and the 100 free (he also took third in the 100 backstroke).
During the regional championships, Gibb narrowly missed the national junior college record in the 50 free with a time of 20.32 seconds (the Olympic Trials qualifying time is 20.49 and the national JUCO record is 20.09). His state championship time in the 100 free was 44.79, just better than the 44.89 Trials qualifying time. During Gibb's senior year in high school his best time in the 50 free was 21.47 and his time in the 100 free was 46.27. A time drop of a 10th of a second is considered a large improvement, so to drop full seconds at a national level is nearly unheard of in the sprints.
``From high school, I thought I might get close (to the Trials qualifying times). But nothing like what I did,'' Gibb said. ``I trained year-round, and I'd never really done that before. I just focused on swimming.''
Gibb's coaches look at his time drops, and they look at Gibb, and they see virtually unlimited potential. Gibb was just measured two weeks ago at 6-feet-7, and he now weighs about 215 to 220 pounds. He was 6-6, about 170-180 as a senior in high school, and he's still getting used to his larger body. His coaches think Gibb may end up being close to 6-9 when he stops growing. Bentley said he's never really worked with a quality sprinter who was taller than 6-2, but Biondi was 6-6 in his prime, which included winning six Olympic medals, and Popov, the current world 50-meter free record holder, is 6-7.
``I think Derek is like Matt Biondi at 17,'' Ruffner said. ``In the next four years, Derek has the tools to be a national champion. He has the same raw body as Matt Biondi, and Derek will be bigger. He can dominate in size in the swimming pool like Shaq (Shaquille O'Neal) does on the basketball court. I've been in the sport a long time and I swam next to a lot of the top guys. I think Derek has the chance to be No. 1 in the country in two or three years.''
Gibb is moving up in the ranks of the nation's top sprinters, but in the long run Bentley thinks Gibb would be better served to look at longer events. Gibb's form is so raw, and he still makes too many technical mistakes that Gibb would suffer in a sprint race.
``The 50's really not his event,'' Bentley said. ``He could be the best 200-free swimmer in the world, if we could get him to swim the event. Each time we get him to swim a 200 it's a victory for the coaches. The margins are so tight in the sprints, and Derek's so raw he makes a few mistakes every time he swims. We try to correct one thing at a time, but he needs a perfect race in the sprints. In the longer races those little mistakes aren't so consequential.''
``You've got to be perfect in the sprints,'' Gibb said. ``I've always been a sprinter, it's what I liked best. We didn't have as long a workouts. This year I trained the 200 a lot to keep my endurance up for the 100.''
After graduating from Petersburg, Gibb headed to Golden West College to try and straighten out his academics. He was training with Golden West Swim Club, then coached by Ruffner, and wasn't planning on swimming in college this year. But Ruffner and Bentley, who frequently coach together, liked what they saw and persuaded him to join the college squad.
Gibb has one more year at Golden West, then he expects to move to a major university team to finish his college eligibility. Gibb said he's being recruited by California-Berkeley and the University of Southern California, but he might also go to one of the Arizona schools (Arizona or Arizona State). Gibb said his school work is improving and he's looking to major in business, real estate or computer science.
``He was swimming with the club team, and Mike and I were talking when we saw Derek in the water,'' Bentley said. ``Mike took a look and said this kid could be good. He had a pure enjoyment, and we saw what raw talent he had. Here was this small-town kid from Petersburg, population 4,000. We brought him to a couple of meets and had some (NCAA) Division I coaches look at him. My old coach, Sam Freese who's now at Hawaii, looked at him and saw a lot of potential, and he's someone who believed in me when I didn't think I was that good, so I respect his opinion.''
``We took his raw mechanics, and saw so much potential,'' Ruffner said. ``Here's a guy who's gone 20.32 in the 50, breathing every stroke down the pool (most sprinters breathe alternate strokes or hold their breath through most of the race), and he doesn't turn all that great. He made a dramatic step getting to the Olympic trials. But it's a huge, quantum leap to get to the Olympics.''