Derek Gibb moved one step closer to his ultimate dream this weekend when he arrived in Daegu, South Korea, for the World University Games.
Gibb, a 1999 Petersburg High School graduate who will be a senior at NCAA champion Auburn University, eventually wants to swim in the 2004 Athens Olympics and hopes the World University Games experience will help him make the U.S. Olympic Team.
"This is the road I'm on and these are just stepping stones," Gibb said in a phone interview last week from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he was training. "Last year I got to go to the World Cup and now I'm at this level. Next year I'll do the NCAAs, nationals and the Olympic Trials."
The World University Games run from Aug. 21-31 and features events in 13 different sports. More than 11,000 participants are expected in Korea. Athletes must be between ages 17-28 and currently enrolled in a full course of study at a university or no more than one year past graduation.
There is a winter version and a summer version of the World University Games, which take place every other year.
Several Alaskans have competed in the winter version, but it's been rare for an Alaska athlete to make the United States team for the summer games. The last Alaskans to compete in the summer games were marathoner Kristi Klinnert (now Kristi Waythomas) of Kodiak and Anchorage, who won a bronze medal, and judo competitor D'Anya Bierria of Anchorage, both in 1995.
The World University Games is a big change from the FINA World Cup event Gibb entered last December in New York. The World Cup, his first international competition, was part of a yearly seven-meet series of swim meets. The New York meet was the only one held in the United States.
"I went to the World Cup in December and this is way bigger," Gibb said. "This event has the top college and university athletes from around the world. We've been looking at the host (Web) site and the pictures of the buildings. The stadium for the opening ceremonies holds 65,000 people. They built a whole little village for the athletes. This is a big event and it's pretty exciting."
Gibb's individual event - the 50-meter freestyle - is scheduled for Aug. 30. Gibb said he might swim in the 400-meter freestyle relay in the preliminary heat Aug. 25, but he probably won't be on the team if it makes the finals on Aug. 30.
Gibb has come a long way since he earned Alaska's male high school swimmer of the year award at the 1998 state swim meet.
He went to Golden West College, a community college near Los Angeles, and nearly broke the California Junior College record for the 50-yard freestyle. That race qualified him for the 2000 Olympic Trials, his first meet that used the 50-meter pool favored by international competition. While Gibb finished down in the pack, his college coach at the time thought Gibb was on an Olympic path.
"He'll go to the Olympics in 2004, there's no doubt if he sticks with it," former Golden West coach Steve Bentley said before the 2000 Olympic Trials. Bentley held world records in the breaststroke events when he competed, but never swam in an Olympics. Gibb transferred to Auburn in 2001, and he finished sixth in the 50-yard freestyle at the 2002 NCAA Championships, where the Tigers finished third.
Last year Gibb took fourth place in the 50 freestyle, 10th in the 100 backstroke and 16th in the 100 freestyle as Auburn won the NCAA title. Gibb also was on two fourth-place relay teams and a sixth-place relay at the NCAA championships. At the FINA World Cup meet in December, Gibb finished eighth in the 50-meter backstroke.
But Auburn coach David Marsh told Gibb to take a break at the end of the school year and skip this year's USA Swimming National Championships. At the end of the college season this spring, Marsh said he felt Gibb was homesick for Alaska and he needed to go home for awhile.
Gibb returned to Alaska from May 8 to July 1, spending about three weeks commercial fishing and crabbing on the Erika Ann out of Petersburg and spending about four weeks in Juneau where his parents, Larry and Kim Gibb, now live.
He did some light training in Petersburg and Juneau, but Gibb said he didn't really start to work out again until he got back to Auburn, Ala., in July. He headed to Colorado Springs in early August so he could train at altitude, then met in San Francisco on Friday with the other World University Games athletes from the United States. He arrived in Korea on Sunday.
"It was definitely a good idea by my coach to take a break now so I can train straight through to the 2004 Olympics," Gibb said. "The first day I got back in July I was just killing 'em. I was ready to book. It was a good mental break. They're trying not to kill me too hard, so I'm doing a lot of speedwork at altitude. I'm definitely plenty ready to go."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.