Peter Kline is approaching his swimming crossroads.
River fork might be a more proper analogy.
Cal Poly’s decorated senior swimmer will begin competition today in his second straight trip to the NCAA Championships. Depending on how well the former Fresno San Joaquin Memorial record-breaker does, this weekend could be the end of his competitive career or the beginning of a solo journey toward next summer’s Olympic Trials.
Looking to become the Mustangs’ first All-American since moving up to Division I in 1994, Kline is ranked 12th in his signature event, the 400-yard individual medley, and will also compete in the 200 IM and 200 backstroke.
He has to place in the top eight to earn All-America status, and that accomplishment could be the motivation needed to commit to a year of vigorous training without the support of his college team.
“It would definitely be a big influence if I did a lot better than expected because then it might carry me through and tell myself whether I could be a top finisher in the Olympic Trials,” Kline said. “But I think if I were to go out in this meet, it’s a great meet. The NCAA meet is even a little harder to make than Olympic Trials, and it’s just as competitive.”
Kline will either continue competing or start work in the agribusiness field, where he’ll join another former swimmer — his dad, Dan, a three-year varsity water polo player at San Jose State who got his son started in aquatics after he was almost swept away by the Santa Cruz surf as a toddler.
By virtue of his second-place finish in the 400 IM at the Pac-10 Championships, Kline received an automatic bid to the NCAA meet, which is being held at the Minnesota Aquatic Center in Minneapolis, home of the Minnesota Gophers.
His 3-minute, 45.91-second mark at the conference meet lowered a program record he already owned several times over.
The Mustangs competed in the Pac-10 for the first time this season after the sport was dropped by the Big West Conference.
Cal Poly head coach Tom Milich said he’s hoping the program can become more alluring to swimmers who want to compete but were passed over by Pac-10 stalwarts Cal and Stanford.
But Milich, who is also a former assistant U.S. Olympic coach and head coach at Fresno State prior to the Bulldogs’ program being dropped in 2004, said the new conference affiliation has immediate benefits for Kline.
“The move for us to go into the Pac-10 was huge because they’re the number one swimming conference in the country,” Milich said. “Cal is the favorite to win the team championship. Stanford is second. USC and Arizona State will probably finish in the top six. “A big step for him was to swim in the Pac-10 finals because a large portion of the Pac-10 finals is going to be the NCAA finals.”
Prior to last year’s national championship meet, Kline had already competed in the 2008 Olympic Trials and swam in grand prix events alongside top pro Michael Phelps.
But the 6-foot, 170-pound former Panther, who set CIF-Central Section Division II records in the 200 IM and 500 freestyle as a prep senior, was still wide-eyed at being one of the smaller competitors for a one-person contingent.
That experience — and a glitch in his class schedule that forced Kline to miss out on afternoon team practices to train in the morning — have him better prepared for what could be his final meet.
Practice schedules have made Kline a one-man team for much of the season, and the concern over size is now just an afterthought.
“I was just completely blown away about how large these teams were, how big some of the guys were on the teams,” said Kline, who was the first Cal Poly swimmer to make the championship event in an era that dates back prior to the start of the NCAA’s Division II. “I kind of looked back and thought, ‘Am I really going to be able to compete with these guys?’ But after some good summer meets, gaining some more good national experience, I think these guys aren’t that much bigger than me. I might be smaller, but I definitely have a way of keeping up with them.”
The unanswered question is whether Kline will keep on keeping up.