By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, April 5, 2018
Chad Carvin won a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics, but when it comes to his legacy as a competitive swimmer, he believes he’s best known for the Olympics that never happened for him.
Heading into the 1996 Olympic Trials, Carvin, who sharpened his swimming chops in the waters off the Pacific Coast in the Los Angeles area, was world-ranked in several events and had set several American records.
He was a top contender to make the U.S. team competing in Atlanta – and then the unthinkable happened.
Several months prior to Olympic Trials, his heart was attacked by a virus – sapping him of his energy and stamina, leaving his dizzy and short of breath leading up to the meet.
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was or how severe it was,” said Carvin, who competed in his first Trials four years earlier as an 18-year-old. “Tests showed I had a severe virus in my heart, and that basically took me out of contention.
“I couldn’t train for months leading up to Trials, and I wasn’t cleared to compete either, so I withdrew. It was devastating.”
Carvin said he spent the following year after those Olympic Trials evaluating his future, trying new things and activities and ultimately finding his way back to swimming.
He took up cycling as a way to stay in shape after fully recovering from the virus and as a way to maintain his natural desire and inclination to compete.
He needed some distance from the sport he picked up as a 5-year-old, and contemplated whether or not he still had the desire to compete in the water.
Turns out he did.
After deep reflection and success on land in cycling, he realized his fire for swimming was still burning strong – and he still had something to prove to himself as well as the world.
“It was crushing to me when I didn’t get to compete in those Trials, but rather than allow that disappointment to define me, I decided to use it as motivation,” he said. “Within a year, I was back in the pool focused on doing what I needed to do to be ready for 2000.”
Securing a sponsorship so he could continue training at the necessary level to be competitive was key for Carvin.
It was the beginning of the time when top swimmers were gaining more notoriety and companies saw opportunities to come on board to back them financially.
While he resumed his pursuits in the pool, Carvin also began swimming in the growing open water arena – returning to his childhood beach roots in Southern California.
When the 2000 Trials came around, he said he felt very prepared to complete the mission that was denied him four years earlier.
When the meet was finished, Carvin had accomplished what he had set out to do by making the U.S. team headed for Sydney in two events – the 400 freestyle and as a member of the 800 freestyle relay.
Suffice it to say – it was a dream come true even if it was four years later than he had originally expected.
“I was training faster than ever before the Olympic Trials, and that translated to a great meet,” said Carvin, who won the 5K Open Water National Championship and competed in the RCP Tiburon Mile. “It was so great to make the team, and because of all I went through in getting there, I think I appreciated it more in 2000.
“My perspective was definitely different, and I appreciated it all so much more because of what I went through.”
Carvin went on to compete for another four years, vying for a shot at the 2004 Olympic team but came up short of making the team.
He competed through the summer and earned a spot on the FINA Short Course World Championship team at the end of the season, and chose to make that his retirement meet.
With his degree in Finance in hand, he secured a position with Smith Barney working toward becoming a stock broker, but he knew pretty quickly he wasn’t meant to sit in an office and wear a shirt and tie all day.
Within two years, he was back on the beach as an ocean lifeguard, protecting the beach where he swam and played as a child.
Twelve years later, he’s still there – having worked his way up through the ranks – and he can’t imagine being anywhere or doing anything else.
“The beach in Southern California is obviously one of the biggest tourist draws, and being able to be here on alert to save lives is a great honor for me,” said Carvin, who worked as a lifeguard the summer he was 16 before going full-bore into training for the Olympics.
“I was miserable working in an office; I needed a more active job. My brother was an ocean lifeguard and always loved it, so I decided to also go for it. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I will do this as long as I can.”
And when he thinks back upon his lengthy career in competitive swimming, Carvin said he has many fond memories intertwined with the disappointment of 1996.
Still, he knows his career progressed as it was supposed to, and making the most of the opportunities that he did have made all of the struggle worth it.
“I know I will always be remembered in the swimming world for what happened in 1996, but I hope people will remember that I persevered and didn’t allow that experience to keep me from going for what I wanted,” said Carvin, who attended the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as a 10-year-old and realized then that he wanted to one day be an Olympian.
“Swimming taught me that everything is a process, and setting and achieving goals is important whether you’re swimming or doing your job. The satisfaction is in the process of knowing what you want and not letting life interrupt your motivation to achieve it. I hope everyone sees me as someone who achieved that because I know I do.”