Less than one second made the difference between David Cromwell going to Beijing or coming home to Missoula. Finding perspective within the pressure of Olympic-level competition may take a little longer.
Entering last month’s U.S. Olympic trials, Missoula swimmer David Cromwell ranked eighth in the world in the 100m backstroke. His qualifying time, 53.81, was third best among the 84 swimmers competing for just two spots on the U.S. Olympic team.
David Cromwell kept telling himself this was like every other meet. Ignore the cameras from NBC. Forget the hundreds of other swimmers, the world record holders, the cover boys, all competing for a few precious spots on the U.S. Olympic team. Never mind the fact that, essentially, the past two years of professional training—hell, maybe even his entire life—had come down to three days in Omaha, Neb. The U.S. Olympic trials, Cromwell kept insisting, was just another meet.
“I remember looking around and thinking, I’ve beaten all of these guys,” says the 24-year-old Missoula swimmer. “There wasn’t one person racing the 100 [-meter backstroke] who I hadn’t beaten before. It wasn’t like when I started, where you come from Montana and you see all these guys who you’ve never raced before. It wasn’t like that. I’d seen them, and most of the time I’d beaten them.”
Just a year before last month’s Olympic trials, Cromwell burst onto the national and international swimming scene. At the Spring Championships in March 2007, he took first in both the 100m and 200m backstroke. At the National Championships last November, he placed second to the indomitable Michael Phelps in the 100m backstroke, posting the sixth fastest finish ever by an American. His time, 53.82, would have won the 2004 Olympics. In the 200m backstroke at the same event, he beat world record holder Ryan Lochte by nearly two seconds and placed third. A few months later, Cromwell beat Austrian Markus Rogan, the silver medalist at the 2004 Olympics in both the 100m and 200m backstroke, at the Grand Prix in Italy. Cromwell definitely belonged.
Not only that, he thought he could win. Since graduating from Harvard University in 2006, he trained three times a day at the University of Texas under the leadership of Eddie Reese, head coach of both UT and the men’s U.S. Olympic team. Cromwell scrapped for sponsorships and tutored at night so he could afford to continue swimming. Every day in Austin he swam against the world’s best, including the current record holder in both the 100m and 200m backstroke, Aaron Peirsol, and he held his own. Often, he beat Peirsol. Cromwell climbed from being unranked and unknown to eighth in the world. Swimming World magazine referred to him as the “biggest breakthrough performer on the American male scene.”
Despite competing in one of the most competitive strokes on one of the most competitive Olympic teams—the U.S. has claimed the last three gold medals in the men’s 100m backstroke—Cromwell believed he had a shot to go to Beijing. To achieve his goal, he needed to finish within the top two in either the 100m or 200m. And just getting to those finals would be brutal. In his first event, the 100m, 11 preliminary heats would narrow the field of 84 swimmers down to 16, then two semifinal races later the same day would slot the final eight competitors. Nothing was guaranteed. His progress the last year only meant he had a chance. His qualifying time of 53.81—third best among the field—only secured Cromwell a center lane assignment in his prelim.
“In the first race, I touched the wall and I was thinking, Um, well, that’s okay. I’m usually slow in the morning. I’ll be fine. I’ll get faster,” remembers Cromwell. He finished a lackluster third in 54.57, well off his best time. No matter, he thought. He just had to make the final.
But he was slow in the semifinals, as well. His time, 54.38, was good enough for ninth with only the top eight moving on. In arguably his best event, he failed to reach the finals by .22 seconds. Already, Cromwell began to see Beijing slip away.
“We could tell something was off,” says Charlie Cromwell, David’s older brother. “We didn’t know if there was anything that could really fix it.” His father, Terry, says his son just didn’t look right in the water. “It was the first time I ever remember watching him in the water and worried that he just didn’t have it,” says Lauren Cromwell, David’s sister. His coach, Reese, told reporters that Cromwell had lost weight leading up to the trials. By all accounts, he looked weak.
“I think there was something wrong,” says Cromwell. “But I’m the type of guy who always tries to keep things positive. And then you don’t make the final and you’re like, wow. Just, wow. I jumped in the warm-down pool after the 100 and just tried to figure out what happened…I tried to remember that it’s just one race and there’s a lot of meet left.”
Peirsol ended up taking the first spot in the 100m. Matt Grievers, a swimmer out of Tucson, took second. His time was only .62 seconds better than Cromwell’s best.
Two days later, after competing in a freestyle event that should have helped clear his mind, Cromwell struggled again in the 200m prelims. He placed third in his first heat, almost three seconds off his qualifying time. Then, in the semifinals, he momentarily found his stride, shooting out to an early lead. Going into his second turn at the 100m mark, Cromwell was only trailing Peirsol. But he faded down the stretch. When the two semifinal heats were tallied, Cromwell came in tenth. There’d be no finals. He was done.
On July 4, in front of 13,247 fans, Peirsol and Lochte finished one-two in the 200m-backstroke final. Cromwell watched.
“I wish I knew what happened,” Cromwell says. “I really don’t know. That’s what I’m still trying to figure out.”
Two days after the 200m finals, July 6, Cromwell posted his post-race thoughts on his personal web page, davidcromwell.net. He prefaced the entry by saying he was just “shooting from the hip” and that he’d probably have a better perspective later on, but that he created the site to be honest and frank. He thought it was only right that he share his thoughts, however raw.
“Currently I find myself in the minor throes of depression and disbelief,” he wrote. “My body gave out on me. I am proud that I kept fighting through the meet despite it all, but crushed nonetheless with the end-result… It’s hard to describe what I’m feeling right now. As someone that’s not completely out of touch with what is important in life it’s always hard for me to admit that something as miniscule in the grand scheme of things such as swimming has broken my heart.”
Some fans thought he was suicidal. Most simply worried. Cromwell laughs about all the drama now. He’s human. He came up short of a goal and wasn’t sure how else to articulate his feelings. He knows this isn’t life and death—it’s swimming. But the Olympics can make you forget that. Speaking three weeks after the trials, he says the disappointment had less to do with not making the team or posting a personal best time.
“I hadn’t been the man that I wanted to be,” says Cromwell. “I wanted to be the guy people wanted to be around. And I felt for a while there I wasn’t that guy because I told myself I wanted to focus on a swim meet. I forgot who I was.”
Throughout his life, Cromwell’s had no shortage of role models. Most were athletes, but when Cromwell speaks of how they influenced him, it has very little to do with final scores or stopwatches.
“My Grandpa Sonny was this scrappy Italian immigrant who grew up in Meaderville,” says Cromwell. “Not even Butte, but Meaderville—where the Berkeley Pit is now. He was the one all of the cousins looked up too. He was a legend.”
Grandpa Sonny was born Carlo Giorgi in Lucca, Italy, and his name was Americanized to Charles George at Ellis Island. He started boxing in the early 1930s, when the Irish controlled the sport, which made it tough for an Italian to get fights. So George changed his name again, this time to Sonny O’Day, and listed his birthday as St. Patrick’s Day. Grandpa Sonny reportedly entered the ring for 529 professional fights, losing just 32, and was friends with the likes of Jack Dempsey and Sonny Liston. In the late ’30s, he opened two nightclubs in Butte and, after serving in World War II, he opened a new tavern in Laurel that celebrated his boxing legacy. Locals called him “The Mayor of Meaderville.”
“We really looked up to him,” says Cromwell. “He was this guy who seemed to do it the right way. He was a great boxer and, even more importantly, a great guy.”
Grandpa Sonny was just the start. Cromwell’s immediate family—not to mention cousins and more distant relatives—is littered with decorated, well-balanced athletes. His brother, Charlie, held state swimming records before competing at Harvard University. A shoulder injury after his sophomore year forced him to switch to water polo, where the Harvard team was nationally ranked.
Charlie, 28, went on to serve four years in the Army, including a tour of Iraq. Now entering his third year of law school at the University of Montana, he recently signed up for a reserve unit out of Fort Missoula.
Cromwell’s sister, Lauren, received all-conference honors in basketball and volleyball at Hellgate High School before rowing crew at the University of Massachusetts, where she helped the team win the Atlantic 10 championship. Lauren, 26, now coaches junior varsity volleyball at Hellgate and is working toward her teaching certificate.
“Chuck and Lauren experienced the recruiting, they experienced a high level of competition—and we’re talking a pretty high level—and Dave got the benefit of all that as the youngest,” says Terry Cromwell, their father. “Dave saw what it takes to be good, I think. He saw how you’re supposed to handle it and that there’s more than just sports. That’s one thing about Dave—he’s got tremendous observational powers. He’s so good at it that it may be one of his worst qualities.”
Then, of course, Cromwell had his father’s influence. Terry, 57, CEO of International Kiosk Solutions, a Missoula-based software company, is quick with a joke and long on stories. He swears he never pushed sports on his kids. He wanted them to be “independent, self-sufficient leaders,” and athletics were simply one way to teach life lessons. For instance, at the same time his youngest son was displaying immense talent in the pool, he also flashed a wicked temper. Terry and his wife, Mary-Glynn, weren’t sure how to harness their son’s competitiveness.
“Finally, I said, ‘Hey man, you need to learn to focus that energy into your endeavor, whatever it is—the classroom, the athletic field, the pool, whatever,’” says Terry. “So I took him fly-fishing. Being the competitor that he is, he just wanted to catch a fish. But you can’t control it except to just focus and get better. You can’t talk that fish in, you can’t yell at him, you can’t boot him. You have to get him on the hook by focusing and being observant and being patient. Man, I tell you, it actually worked on the kid.”
By introducing Cromwell to fly-fishing and golf—“the second most frustrating sport next to fly-fishing,” says Terry—his son gained focus. Soon, the youngest Cromwell was approaching his older siblings’ accomplishments.
“I suppose one of the biggest differences between us when it came to swimming was that I knew I could be good, but Dave knew he could be great,” says Charlie Cromwell, who was also a state champion in the backstroke.
He remembers the 1999 Firecracker Classic at the old McCormick Park pool, when both were still competing for Missoula Aquatic Club. Charlie was 19, back from his first year swimming at Harvard, and hadn’t lost a backstroke race in Montana in more than four years. He especially hadn’t lost to his little brother—ever. But David, just 15, touched out Charlie at the wall in the 100. Charlie was accused of letting his brother win, but promises that wasn’t the case.
“Our lives seem to be a mirror,” says Charlie of the similarities in backstroke and both going to Harvard, “but things always happened a little grander for him. Dave wasn’t just the better swimmer. He wanted more.”
After the Olympic trials, Cromwell returned to Austin, sold his bed and other larger furniture, packed his Ford Ranger with everything else he owned, and hit the road. He swung past the Grand Canyon, then made his way north to the Bay Area to see friends. He was only supposed to be in San Francisco for two days, but two turned into 10.
“A lot of time alone on the road is a good and bad thing,” says Cromwell. “Maybe too much reflection, but at the same time there’s that feeling that you’re moving forward. It’s all very poetic, right?”
Cromwell used the drive as a chance to reflect on the Olympic trials, but not necessarily to get away. In fact, part of the reason his route went through San Francisco was to see his friends on the U.S. Olympic team as they trained in Palo Alto. Specifically, he went to visit Eric Shanteau, a 24-year-old breastroker who trained alongside Cromwell in Austin and became one of his closest buddies. A week before trials, doctors diagnosed Shanteau with testicular cancer.
“It was hard, but you have to quit being a baby at some point,” says Cromwell about spending time with the team. “I knew I wanted to see Eric and any way that I could support him was the most important thing. And it was important that my teammates and friends knew that nothing had changed since they made the team and I didn’t. You face your fears a little bit there, but I like to try and be a grownup every once in a while.”
Talk about perspective. In the days following the 200m backstroke, Cromwell felt like a failure, as if he’d let everyone—family, friends, neighbors, teammates—down. Everything had been for naught. His brother jokes that even a pint of post-race Moose Drool, unexpectedly on tap at a local Omaha bar and Cromwell’s first beer in probably months, didn’t cheer him up. The next day, looking like a “strung-out rock star,” according to Charlie, Cromwell said, “I’ve hit rock bottom.”
On the road, Cromwell started to get a grip. His brother told him about running into old friends Megan and Molly Harrington at Downtown ToNight. When they heard Cromwell had hit rock bottom, one joked, “You know what, I wish I could say I hit rock bottom when I didn’t make the Olympic team.” Then there was Shanteau, who had just made his first Olympic team and wasn’t even excited—he was worried, as he told reporters later, “about bigger bridges to cross.” Everyone Cromwell visited as he made his way from San Francisco to Portland, Portland to Bend, Bend to Missoula—the road trip stretched to 18 days total—said how exciting he made the trials. There was no talk of disappointment. Not making the Olympic team seemed like nothing.
“It’s hard because you realize it’s just swimming,” Cromwell says. “I mean, you hear that a guy like Eric Shanteau has cancer and a good friend of mine back here has a brain tumor. I felt guilty how frustrated and bummed out I felt about it. I think when you grow up in Missoula you have that good perspective about things. You know what’s important in life, and swimming is certainly not high up on that pyramid.”
At one point, Cromwell prided himself on cherishing that point. But at the highest levels of competition, there exists a precarious balance between concentrating on such a specific goal and losing focus of the bigger picture. It’s why the U.S. Olympic Committee employs a team of sports psychologists at both its Colorado Springs, Colo., and Chula Vista, Calif., facilities, dedicated to dealing with “imagery, goal setting, energy management, effective self-talk, concentration, mental preparation, self-confidence, and how better to handle the pressure of competition.”
Yet during most of his nearly two years at Texas, Cromwell seemed fine. He kept his pursuits in perspective.
“I didn’t go down there with the purpose of training until 2008,” he says of his decision to visit Texas before his last year at Harvard. “It was, let’s have some fun and try to have a great senior year. The whole atmosphere ended up being a really good fit. I remember at the end of the summer, Kris Kubik, an assistant down there, said to me, ‘You’re not just going to retire after your senior year, are you?’ And I was like, ‘People actually swim after college?’ And he said, ‘If you want to come down here, there’s a spot here for you.’ As all my friends were really stressing about getting jobs and all that, I thought it’d be nice to put that off for a couple years.”
Cromwell had the best of both worlds at Texas. He fostered a laidback relationship with rivals like Peirsol and Shanteau outside the pool, but in practice could let his competitive nature thrive. For the first time ever, world-class swimmers surrounded him and coach Reese’s throwback style called for every practice to be swum like a race. As Cromwell improved, he started to set bigger goals.
“The thing with swimming is you can’t be successful if you’re content,” he says. “If I would have been content being a state record holder, I wouldn’t have reached the regional level. And once I got to the regional level and thinking, Cool, this is good, you’re looking up to the national level, and then the international level. You’re always looking up. You have to.”
For Cromwell, that mindset worked great as the underdog from Montana. Despite having the good fortune to swim at a young age in Missoula under coaches like Jim Hawbaker and former Olympic backstroker David Berkoff, he was always pegged as the kid from the sticks who trained by himself in fly-fishing rivers. Even after a decorated career at Harvard—he was an academic All-American and named best male athlete at the school as a senior—he arrived in Austin under the radar and with nothing to lose.
That also meant he was dirt poor. Unless an athlete’s already made the Olympic team or garnered headlines with world records, sponsorships and national team support are sparse. In Cromwell’s case, they were practically nonexistent.
“Anyone in Missoula, I think, can relate to this—it’s a hustle,” he says. “You just figure out a way to make it work. I was usually working two jobs…tutoring 30 hours a week in the [UT] athletic department and, for a while there, writing for a swimming website, which ended up working out pretty well financially. I think it’s a stress that a lot of Missoulians feel. You have this thing that you want to do and place where you want to be, and you just have to figure out a way to do it.”
It still wasn’t enough to make ends meet, and it’s not like there was extra time for Cromwell to pick up another job. His typical day involved a 6:30 a.m. wake-up for practice at 7. He’d swim for 90 minutes, come home to write for swimnetwork.com, and then return to campus for a 90-minute weightlifting and “dry land” workout session at 1:15 p.m. A second afternoon swim went from 3 to 5 p.m. Then he’d go tutor.
Stretched thin, his parents had to bail him out financially “more than I’d like to admit,” he says. However, eventually bolstered by improved times and increased exposure, Cromwell decided to try and recruit personal sponsors. That led him back to Missoula.
“I was like a kid running a bake sale for a trip abroad,” he says. “I found some companies that I thought had supported people in similar situations as me, and I thought it could be a good opportunity for them.”
In particular, Allegiance stepped up with a huge donation, as did First Interstate Bank. The community support seemed to only drive Cromwell harder.
“For a year and a half down there, I knew that I loved what I was doing and I was going to find a way to figure it out,” he says. “Unless you’re already at the top, you’re on your own. That’s why I think it’s so cool to come from where I did, where no one had ever really done this before. But I think people did recognize that there was a chance, just to know that I could chase this dream. My family was cool with it while my classmates were out making ridiculous salaries and starting their careers and I was this chump eating frozen chicken and pasta every night. It’s a tradeoff because I really believed in what I was doing. That’s what this was all about—to prove that a little punk kid from Hellgate could make it to the Olympics.”
Cromwell admits that somewhere along the line he forgot about the punk from Hellgate. It’s his only regret looking back at the trials—that he didn’t stay more true to himself in the weeks leading up the biggest meet of his life.
“My dad knows better than anyone how hard I am on myself,” Cromwell says. “He’s the one, ever since grade school, who would ask me, ‘Are you having fun? Are you having fun?’ I certainly tried to keep it fun. I think I was successful there for a long time. But I think as I got to trials I really should have done a better job. I’m at my best when I’m laughing and staying loose.”
“It got away from him,” says his father. “It got away from him big time. I was like, ‘Dude, this is supposed to be fun.’ I’ve never been eighth in the world in anything. I don’t think I’ve ever just been eighth in anything. I said, ‘Man, you should be having a riot. I’d be the guy the coaches would have to find down on Sixth Street, missing curfew’…The issue is, Dave fell into the trap of over-thinking the framework that you’re given during training at such a high level. He stopped having fun.
“All I ever do with Dave is try to inject humor,” continues his father. “It’s just absurd that you would reach that level and get so wrapped up in it, and then not reach a goal just because it’s .6 seconds away from reaching the goal. I mean, call me stupid, but I can’t even tell you how fast that is. I mean, I hear that and tell him, ‘Dude, just grow your fingernails out longer next time and you’ll get there.’”
Sitting at Greek Gyros and Pastry Shop last week, sporting aviators, a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, Cromwell appears to have coolly moved on from Omaha. He doesn’t know what happened, or why, and asks to leave it at that. He’s not sure what’s next and he doesn’t need to decide now. He’s leaning toward swimming for a club team in Europe, taking advantage of the fact he’s fluent in French and has family from Grandpa Sonny’s side in Italy. It would also wash away the bad taste of the Olympic trials, end his career on perhaps a better note. But he’s noncommittal. He could choose law school instead.
Right now, if anything, he’s focused on getting back to being himself.
“You feel like a failure and you let yourself down,” he says. “The people close to you, you know that they love you no matter what. So you realize the only person you’ve let down is yourself and you have to deal with that.”
He has yet to swim in a pool since Omaha, but he’s already planned his next clinic in Missoula; Piersol and former Olympic backstroker Neil Walker are slated to help him with a demonstration in September. He worries about letting down his fans and the Missoula community, but judging from the pile of letters and emails he hasn’t lost much support. And he wonders about his sponsors, what they take from this odd relationship the last few years.
“I mean, at this point, since I didn’t make the Olympic team, what did [Allegiance and First National Bank] get out of this? I don’t know that I can say I increased sales. Was I this icon that was bringing in business? I don’t think so. But, I guess, there’s the satisfaction they get from trying to help out. Hopefully there’s that feeling, at least. I know I’m just so thankful for what they gave me.”
On the other side of this equation are those who want Cromwell to know what he gave them. For example, Kennedy Salonen, a 10-year-old swimmer for Missoula Aquatic Club, met Cromwell at a clinic last fall. She was so enamored by his Olympic pursuit that she asked if the whole family could make the 17-hour drive to Omaha and cheer him on. She has yet to see Cromwell since the trials, but her mother says it was a transformative experience for the young swimmer.
“It meant absolutely nothing to her that he didn’t make the finals,” says Jo May Salonen, Kennedy’s mother. “She only sees David as a great swimmer and a role model. She will always see David as a great swimmer and a role model…How he did, win or lose, could never change that. It’s more than that. In the big scheme of things, I think a reaction like hers is what matters.”
The difference between winning and losing, standing on the medal stand or not, is about to dominate the media. Starting Friday, August 8, NBC will broadcast 3,600 hours of the Beijing Olympics, the most of any Summer Olympics in history. Four years ago, the network averaged 24.6 million viewers per evening, and NBC executives are predicting even more this time around. Their high expectations are partly based on the American public’s obsession with once-every-four-years sports like track and field, gymnastics and, especially in Beijing, swimming. With athletes like 41-year-old Dana Torres and world-record-breaker Phelps dominating the competition, all eyes will be on the pool.
But maybe not Cromwell’s.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” he says. “I’m certainly going to follow them, see how my friends did. But there’s a good chance I may be out in the woods without a TV. I may just be enjoying Montana.”