Alex Meyer swimming with a purpose
Bonnie D. Ford [ARCHIVE]
July 22, 2012
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- As a kid in upstate New York, Alex Meyer imagined jumping off a bridge at the northern end of slender Cayuga Lake and swimming farther than he could see, almost 40 miles south, to his hometown of Ithaca. As a professional open water swimmer, he has raced through the waves that roll onto some of the world's most beautiful beaches. More recently, Meyer, the only American man who will compete in the 10-kilometer event at the 2012 London Olympics, has made Walden Pond -- the watery muse of author Henry David Thoreau -- his training base and sanctuary.

But temperatures are in the low 50s in suburban Boston on this midweek afternoon in early May, too cold to swim outdoors. So as on many other days, Meyer's world shrinks to a 10- by 16-foot tank sitting on the deck at Harvard University's Blodgett Pool. Current flows out of one end, holding him in place as he swims against it. It's called an Endless Pool. At the moment, it looks more like an aquatic torture chamber.

Meyer's arms lift, extend, lower and pull with mind-numbing regularity, revealing a trident tattooed on his inner right biceps. The skin on his shoulders and back is flushed pink with exertion. Meyer pops up to take a pull from a protein shake balanced on the rim of the tank, sees a visitor and pauses for a second. "Hi," he said, as the current pushes him backward.

"He's on hour three," said Harvard head coach Tim Murphy, who is wearing jeans, a white polo shirt and an intense, preoccupied expression. He checks a laptop, hustles to the side of the tank and holds a stopwatch overhead to time Meyer's stroke rate -- the increment between each time his right hand strikes the water. Murphy fiddles with the device that controls the speed of the current, hurries over to an easel, picks up a blue marker and scrawls numbers on a dry erase board that is already covered with them.

As the Aug. 10 Olympic race bears down on Meyer, he needs to subject himself to some chop and churn and to swim without stopping -- as he will, all out, for two hours on a rectangular course in the Serpentine lake in London's Hyde Park. "If you think about it, walls are an interruption," said Murphy, who was named to the U.S. Olympic team staff after Meyer qualified last summer. "We're teaching his body to adjust to continual changes, to be ready for anything that gets thrown at him."

The sport has thrown a lot at Meyer, who turned 24 in early July. Physically unimposing at 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, admittedly clumsy on land and lacking fast-twitch speed, he had one athletic card to play: stamina. Being a miler in the pool gave him a sense of pride. Transferring those skills to open water enabled him to become an Olympian. In between, a shoddily run race cost Meyer his mentor and dear friend in horrifying fashion.

Everywhere Meyer travels, he carries a small, battered picture frame that holds a photo of Fran Crippen, who succumbed to heat exhaustion and drowned in a 10-kilometer World Cup race in the United Arab Emirates in October 2010. Meyer, the first person to realize Crippen was missing, led fellow swimmers in a search for him and watched helplessly from the shore as Crippen's body was ferried from the water.

Meyer still conjures up Crippen's long-limbed form training alongside him and feels his fierce, funny, generous presence. He has embraced Crippen's family and friends, and they him. He has honored Crippen with his performance, and in one harrowing moment last year, he honored Crippen by refusing to race.

Voluntarily shouldering the hopes of Crippen's loved ones along with his own was a responsibility that made Meyer nervous -- "times a thousand," he said -- before last year's national and world championships. But to reference the old swimming cliché, once he was in the water, Meyer didn't race with a piano on his back. Nor does he feel weighed down now.

"I think he feels like these people he's come to know because of Fran are underneath him, propelling him forward," Meyer's former Harvard teammate Sam Wollner said by phone. "There's nothing more dangerous to the field than someone who's competing for something bigger than himself. I have high hopes that it'll play out the way he wants it to."

Earning a slot in London "just needed to happen," Meyer said over coffee in his basement apartment a few blocks from Harvard Square. "Aside from the fact that I myself wanted to be on the Olympic team, I wanted to make Fran proud, and his family and friends. Right now, it's a huge motivator."

Taking it outdoors Meyer's brown eyes shine out from childhood photos as though he's thinking about something amusing but wants to keep it to himself. "He did everything early -- walked, talked and read," said his mother, Shawn. "He was intuitive and analytical and just curious." In conversation, he often anticipates where a question is going and begins to answer before it's done.

As much as he relishes being in the chaotic vortex of an open water race, Meyer also is attached to deep, quiet and simple pleasures. He likes composing personal notes on a 1950s-vintage Olympia Super Deluxe typewriter that he acquired on Craigslist. For years, he has made Christmas ornaments for his friends and family, hand-building and painting clay Santas customized for each person -- a swimming Santa for his mother, Shawn; a kayaking Santa for Murphy, who paddles alongside when he's training at Walden.

There's a purity to being outdoors that appeals to Meyer. He did a lot of growing up there. Shawn and Steve Meyer, both college swimmers, immersed Alex and younger brother Sam in the water early and took them on excursions to Lake George, where you can rent an island for the day, swim and cook lunch and pick blueberries. The family water-skied and scuba-dived. Steve, Alex and Sam still take backpacking trips out west.

But Meyer became the athlete he is indoors in the six-lane, 25-yard pool at Ithaca High School, where he began swimming with the varsity team in seventh grade. Lane 1 was "my territory, my own personal dungeon, my own hell that I spent quality time in every day," Meyer said. He tacked a list of time standards to his bedroom wall and checked them off one by one.

Roy Staley, a gruff, animated mentor who began coaching high school and club teams in town in 1968, saw a kid who didn't have interstellar talent but liked to work. Long, punishing sets were an irresistible dare for Meyer. If he was late or forgot to bring some key item to a meet, Staley would assess extra butterfly yardage. At one point, Meyer's tab reached 9,000 yards. Staley told him he could whittle away at it over a few practices, but Meyer insisted on doing it in one session.

Then, as now, Meyer reveled in his identity as an endurance guy. "I don't really care how fast I can swim a 100 free," he said. "What matters is how fast I can swim...
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