The moment when Zach Stevens realized that he could potentially swim in the Olympics happened at age 10.
He was competing in the 2006 Southern California Junior Olympics in Santa Clarita. By the end of his 50-meter breaststroke race, he became the event’s national record holder for his age group after finishing in 36.10 seconds.
The accomplishment shifted his focus.
“It changed my future goals, as far as looking in the long term,” he said. “It showed me that I had the potential to grow into a great athlete and have a great swim career in the future.”
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Now, Stevens is a 16-year-old and soon-to-be Arroyo Grande High junior who’s flying out this weekend for the two biggest races of his life at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. He’s scheduled to compete in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke Monday followed by the 200 breaststroke Thursday.
This will be his first time at the Trials. Jud Clark, a coach for the Puma Aquatic Team, said Stevens will be one of the younger swimmers to compete at the national event — an experience that will undoubtedly shape his career later, perhaps when the Olympics take place in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“I call it stubborn persistence,” Clark said of Stevens’ determination. “It’s a good thing. It’s wanting more from what he can do, continuing to better himself and challenging himself. He pushes himself on days when he doesn’t want to swim.”
Though he has the next Olympics in the back of his mind, Stevens has goals for this year’s Trials, which is one step from the London Olympics later this summer. Stevens hopes to lower his qualifying marks of 1 minute, 4.28 seconds in the 100 breaststroke and 2:19.98 in the 200 breaststroke.
“I’m trying not to set my standards too high,” he said.
That’s because he knows he’s still got some time left. He’ll be a teenager going up against swimmers in their 20s and, in some cases, 30s. They’ll arrive at the meet with more experience and accolades. For example, Brendan Hansen is a 30-year-old four-time Olympic medalist who has the top 100 and second-best 200 breaststroke seeding times of 1:00.08 and 2:09.64.
Twenty-eight-year-old Eric Shanteau has the best 200 breaststroke time of 2:09.28.
There are more than 130 swimmers listed in each of those events, with the top two moving on to London.
“I’m going to try not to think about the competition until I’m there,” Stevens said. “I’m focused on my own race and the training I’ve done to get here.”
Stevens qualified for the Trials at last year’s Junior Olympics. Since then, he has continued to swim for the Puma Aquatic Team and broken numerous school records at Arroyo Grande. He was second in the 100-yard breaststroke at this past season’s CIF-Southern Section meet. He’s also a two-time PAC 7 champion in the 200-yard individual medley and 100-yard breaststroke.
“It’s fun to be a part of a team of guys who are extremely competitive,” he said about swimming for the Eagles. “It’s a great opportunity to race every single week. Yeah, it’s different than club, but it helps me get the motivation to swim the rest of the year.”
Until recently, he had intense training sessions. He logged 5,000-6,000 yards of swimming during two-a-day workouts for six days a week under the watch of former Cal Poly coach Richard Firman, who works with the Puma Aquatic Team. Swimming is one of Stevens’ most constant thoughts — and he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“There’s always a misperception that elite athletes like him are being pushed by the parents,” said Stevens’ dad, Tim, who wasn’t a competitive swimmer growing up. “We never had to push him. He’s always pushed himself. He’s a self-motivator.”
And now, Stevens is tapering his training and getting ready for his two big races.
“This is just another step in my career,” he said.