Peter Kline looked around and saw he was sharing the pool with Olympic swimming stars Aaron Peirsol, Ryan Lochte and, the biggest star of all, Michael Phelps.
Through wide eyes, the Cal Poly freshman took in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials. Competing in the event didn’t seem plausible enough to qualify as a dream even five months earlier, but there he was.
“When I got there, I was completely star-struck and kind of nervous,” said Kline, a backstroke/individual medley specialist, “but going into that meet and getting nervous has helped me grow up and not be so nervous at the big meets.”
Just a year earlier, Kline was a 5-foot-9, 130-pound junior-level swimmer at San Joaquin Memorial High in Fresno — an area standout but no hot commodity on the college recruiting circuit — and he wasn’t exactly sure how he’d fit in with the Mustangs in his first season.
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But Kline built confidence by posting an NCAA “B” standard qualifying time in his freshman Big West Conference Championship meet the following February and qualified for the trials by finishing third to Phelps in a 400-meter IM Grand Prix preliminary race that May.
All of a sudden, dreams materialized.
Today, the 6-foot, 160-pound junior will be the first Cal Poly swimmer to compete in the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships since the Mustangs jumped to Division I in 1994. He’s the lone representative from a fast-evolving Mustangs swimming program led by a renowned head coach with U.S. national team and Olympic ties.
And Kline is hoping the big-time experience he got in 2008 can help him also become Cal Poly’s first Division I All-American in more than 40 years. Former Mustangs Gene Lenz, John Adam and Frank Brooks were All-Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s prior to the institution of Division II swimming in 1964.
“What was important to me was basically competing in the trials,” said Kline, who finished 48th overall in the 400-meter IM at the trials, just 2 seconds off his then-personal best. “I could have got in the water and completely choked, but I stepped it up. That was more important.”
Kline will swim three events beginning with the 200-yard IM Friday at the NCAA meet, which is being held at Ohio State’s McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion. Kline will also swim the 200-yard backstroke Sunday, but his best event — the 400-yard IM on Saturday — will be his best shot of earning All-America status and his best chance to make it into the final eight.
Kline has the 17th-fastest time in the 400 IM at 3 minutes, 46.79 seconds. That mark represents a seven-second drop from his sophomore best, which was 14 seconds better than his time coming in as a freshman.
“That big drop was huge,” said third-year Cal Poly head coach Tom Milich, a former Fresno State men’s water polo coach who spent 16 years as the aquatics director for the Clovis Swim Club prior to taking over the Mustangs. “By the time kids get to this age, they’re dropping tenths of a second, maybe a second.
“If he does that again next year, he’s faster than anybody at the NCAA meet.”
At least part of Kline’s improvement has to do with the growth spurt he’s had since high school, which has been fun for Milich to see.
Even before both came to San Luis Obispo, Milich coached Kline with the Clovis Swim Club since the protégé was 12 years old. The relationship helped pave Kline’s way to Cal Poly.
“I teased him when I had him as a club kid,” Milich said. “He was so young looking and small. He’s a junior in college, and he still looks like a freshman.”
Together, they’ve helped rewrite the Mustangs men’s swimming record books, but they’re not alone in that.
Kline owns individual school records in the 100 and 200 backstroke and the 200 and 400 IMs. He also swam a leg in all five of Cal Poly’s school-record relay times. Seven other combined individual school records were also set this year by teammates David LaFlamme, Chasen Nick, Matthew Waggoner and J. Carter Richards.
With the addition of an on-campus Olympic size pool this past fall, Milich is hoping all five will make the NCAA meet next season and expects the facility to bring in a new level of recruits.
“It’s the one thing that really will enable us to do a lot better in recruiting,” Milich said. “The kids, most of them ultimately, their goal is to be an Olympic swimmer, and with our new pool, we can train long course, which is the Olympic course.”
Kline’s new stretch goal is to return to the Olympic Trials and contend for a spot on the national team in 2012.
With Milich, who’s also had stints as an assistant coach with a U.S. silver-medal winning Olympic water polo team in 1988 and a 1991 world championship team, it’s not a wholly unrealistic idea.
“A special thing about Tom is the way he motivates you,” Kline said. “It’s kind of like a kick-in-the-ass type thing … He definitely has a psychological type thing to make you go fast. It’s definitely fun, but he’s there to push you.
“Swimming’s a big mental sport, also. That definitely really helped me this year.”