Chad Carvin was speeding down the road to Atlanta.
As a sophomore at the University of Arizona, Carvin bettered long-standing U.S. records in the distance freestyles at the NCAA Championships in 1994. He twice smashed the nine-year-old record in the 500 freestyle (4:13.06) held by USC's Mike O'Brien, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the 1500 freestyle, going 4:12.44 in the prelims and 4:11.59 in the final. His swim in the final also cracked the U.S. Open mark (4:11.59) of Iowa's Artur Wojdat, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist in the 400 freestyle from Poland. In the 1650 freestyle, Carvin eclipsed the eight-year-old record (14:37.87) of Stanford's Jeff Kostoff with a time of 14:34.91.
Former U.S. Olympic coach Peter Daland called Carvin's performances "a major breakthrough for distance swimming in America."
Carvin followed up by turning in the second-fastest times in the world for 1995 in the middle distances. He won the 200 metre freestyle at the U.S. summer nationals in 1:48.41 and lost the 400 freestyle by just six hundredths to John Piersma with a time of 3:48.78. He also took second in the 1500 freestyle (15:22.42). Carvin was ranked second in the U.S. (10th in the world) in the 1500 (15:20.32) and third nationally (ninth in the world) in the 400 individual medley.
"I thought he was a cinch to make the U.S. Olympic team," says Arizona coach Frank Busch.
But one October day in 1995, Carvin had a sluggish workout. He felt a fatigue like never before. It was one thing to be tired from hard training. But this felt different. When he hadn't even done a hard practice, he experienced difficulty breathing. His training went progressively down from there. He went to the University Medical Center and took a series of blood tests. All were negative. The doctors first thought he might have mono or chronic fatigue syndrome.
Carvin kept training, but his times got slower and his strength diminished. Another series of tests came up negative. The mystery illness began to play games with Carvin's mind. By early December, he could barely make it through warmups.
"I was embarrassed every day in practice," Carvin recalls. "I couldn't figure anything out. I was dreading everything and didn't want to show my face on the pool deck. I was real depressed."
So depressed he attempted an overdose on over-the-counter sleeping pills. While in the hospital recovering from the overdose, a heart test revealed a virus had worked its way into the left ventricle of Carvin's heart. He was suffering from an illness called congestive cardiomyopathy. His heart was pumping out blood at a very low rate.
Dr. Robert Liebowitz, an internist at the medical center, recommended complete bed rest and medication for Carvin. The Arizona student was told to cut back on his class schedule to two classes that met two days a week each. He was given a parking spot close to his classes so he only had to walk a few feet. Swimming, or any exercise, was out of the question. In three months, he would probably know his fate: he had a third of a chance of getting better - a third of staying the same, and a third of getting worse. If his condition stayed the same or got worse, he might have been a candidate for a heart transplant, says Liebowitz.
"Once I found out, the last thing on my mind was swimming," says Carvin. "I was relieved that I didn't have to show up (at the pool) anymore. I was real tired. I didn't have much energy for anything."
The first month of recovery Carvin slept 14 or 15 hours a day. Besides his studies, he spent most of the other time resting and reading the hundreds of getwell cards from everyone from President Clinton to actor Tom Hanks but mostly from the swimming community, including two-time Olympic gold medallists Kieren Perkins of Australia and Brian Goodell, his boyhood idol. And Carvin prayed every night.
In March, the hospital tests showed his condition had markedly improved. He felt good again, too. He started riding his bike and skateboarding. But he wasn't sure he wanted to start swimming again.
"What was fresh in my mind were the two months before I stopped," he says. "I thought I can't swim if I feel like that in the water."
Nevertheless, Carvin returned to the pool a couple of weeks later. At the beginning, each day seemed like a year. His muscles weren't used to swimming. But his strength began returning in two to three weeks while working out just once a day.
"I don't know why I went back," he reflects. "To see how I would feel, I guess."
In July at his home pool, Carvin swam a 400 metre freestyle in 3:55.61 to make him the sixth-fastest American in 1996. The next month he watched the Olympics on TV. "I was disappointed I couldn't be there, but I enjoyed watching the races," he says.
The six-foot-two-inch swimmer, who grew up in Laguna Hills in Southern California, began doing double workouts in October. Because his senior season at Arizona had been cut short due to the illness, he petitioned the NCAA for another year of eligibility. Although he was turned down, he didn't lose the drive to make a comeback.
This February, Carvin became the second swimmer since Mark Spitz to win four events at a U.S. championships when he captured the 200 (1:50.42), 400 (3:52.19) and 1500 (15:29.44) freestyles and 400 IM (4:21.77) in Buffalo. The 200 and 400 IM wins came only 45 minutes apart. He didn't have much competition, though, because the collegiate swimmers didn't attend the meet.
In April at the World Short Course Championships in Gšteburg, Sweden, Carvin took second in the 400 freestyle He lost to Denmark's Jacob Carstensen by 29/100 of a second with a time of 3:43.73. In the 400 IM prelims, he was disqualified for an uneven butterfly after finishing second in 4:12. He passed up the 200 and placed fourth in the 1500 (14:56.10).
Carvin shaved for both meets.
The latest echo cardiogram shows Carvin has a normal heart again. "We have every reason to believe this was a one-time problem," Liebowitz says.
Busch thinks his pupil is now training within five percent of his previous level. Carvin gets pushed in practice from Ugur Taner, gold medallist on the U.S. 800 relay at the 94 Worlds, and South African Ryk Neethling, the NCAA champ in the 1650 as an Arizona freshman. Carvin is going from 12,000 to 14,000 metres a day compared to 14,000 to 16,000 in the past, although, because the team works a lot off of intensity, mileage is not a precise indicator.
"I'm not quite at my fitness level," says Carvin. "I think that may have a lot to do with confidence. Once you start swimming fast and winning at some meets, your confidence goes up and your training reflects that."
His goal is to qualify for the U.S. teams for the Pan Pacific and World Championships. Both squads will be selected off the U.S. summer nationals this July in Nashville, Tennessee.
"I'm looking forward to trying to make the World Championships because they are selecting the team so far in advance," says Carvin. "You'll have all that time to train and be able to compete on a first shave."
In the past, Carvin found it difficult to peak for the international meets coming so soon after nationals. He finished eighth in the 200, 12th in the 400 and 10th in the 1500 at the 1994 World Championships in Rome and took bronze medals in the middle distances and a fourth in the 1500 at the 1995 Pan Pacific meet in Atlanta.
But it won't be the end of the world if Carvin doesn't make it to Perth.
"Chad has a different outlook," says Busch. "Where it used to be 'where does life fit into swimming,' it's now 'where does swimming fit into life.' "
Carvin graduated from Arizona this May with a business degree. He majored in management information systems. He's being helped financially by a recent agreement with TYR Sports to endorse its swimwear.
Carvin says, "Before, I would put a lot of pressure on myself and not accept having a bad day. Now, if I'm swimming well, I'm happy. But if I'm having bad days, I'm still pretty happy."