By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, June 20, 2019
The summer before the seventh grade, John Criste’s parents forced him to make a decision – one that would eventually take him within seconds of becoming an Olympian.
“I had tried baseball, basketball and soccer, but I couldn’t hit or catch a baseball even it was tossed a foot in front of me,” he said. “I couldn’t make a basket, despite my freakish height, and I found soccer boring (that has changed, though my skills are still that of an untrained 12-year-old). So, my parents signed me up for swimming.”
At first, Criste was so bad at swimming that he was placed among the group comprised of 8-, 9-and 10-year-olds – and, as he said, they “wiped the floor” with him.
That was all the motivation he needed to improve.
Swimming brought out a competitive side of Criste that he didn’t previously know existed, and he liked it.
And he made the most of it.
“It just so happens that I started to go through puberty around the same time, so, not only was I putting in work, but I was putting in work at the right time,” he said. “And my body was responding in kind. I improved a lot in a very short amount of time, so I saw no reason to try another sport (especially given my tack record).
“I loved racing, and I loved swim meets. I loved finishing with my warm up, strategizing with my coach, finding a quiet space to put my legs up, listen to music and focus on my race. I lived for it. Nothing changed as I improved; the venues just got bigger.”
Criste parlayed that love of competition and racing into a stellar NCAA and national swimming career – swimming at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic Trials and coming within a few spots of making the team both times.
Following the 2012 Trials, he moved on with his life and away from competitive swimming to pursue his law degree from the University of Miami.
Today, he is not only a lawyer with Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton in Coral Gables, Fla., but he’s also husband to Amanda and father to daughter, Zaila, 3, and son, Zain, 9 months.
Criste said his firm is a boutique litigation – which is a “lawyer for everything that happens when A sues B” – firm with emphasis on business litigation, class action plaintiff’s work, bankruptcy and insolvency and healthcare litigation. He met Amanda, also a lawyer, during law school.
Prior to law school but near the end of his senior year at Stanford, Criste almost gave up on swimming but decided to stick around through 2012 Trials.
After NCAAs that year, he was convinced he was ready to hang up his goggles for good. NCAAs were a disappointing meet from a personal standpoint, despite giving what he said felt like everything he had.
On top of that, Criste found out at the end of his junior year that his mom had been battling what started as breast cancer, for years.
His parents kept it from him and his brother, Mike, because they didn’t want her illness to distract them from accomplishing their own goals. Mike was the starting center for the University of Washington.
“That spring (2010) was a particularly challenging one for my mom,” he said. “By then, the cancer had metathesized to other organs and areas of her body, including a tumor that developed around her cervical spine. Removing it required back-to-back 14-hour operations. And the recovery was grueling.
“But my mom refused to give up. So, I was not going to let one bad meet, in the scheme of an otherwise successful and fulfilling career, derail an opportunity to make the 2012 Olympic team.”
Criste committed to training through the 2012 Olympics. That fall, however, he had an intense realization that his time as a swimmer had a shelf life, one which he didn’t intend to try to outlive.
During the summer and fall of 2011, he gave a lot of thought into his transition out of swimming and developed a post-2012 Olympics plan, which ultimately led him to law school.
“Whether I made the team or not, I knew what my next step was going to be,” he said.
Subsequently, at Trials the next summer, he experienced the highest and lowest of outcomes in a matter of hours at 2012 Olympic Trials.
In the morning prelims of the 100 breaststroke, he swam a personal best to finish first heading into the evening’s semifinals. He was on Cloud 9, dreaming of planning his next steps after making it through semifinals and into the next day’s finals.
But when he took the blocks and started his race in the semis, something went wrong.
“That night, when my name was called, I raised my hand, looked in the direction of my parents’ seats and waived,” he said. “It was my ‘thank you’ to them for their unconditional support throughout my career. It was a privilege and an honor to be able to acknowledge them in that way, even if nobody else knew I was doing it.
“Transitioning to disappointments, my semifinals swim fell apart and I missed the A-final. That year, I put all my eggs into the 100 breast basket, so I knew that was my best shot at the team. I am sure there are others, but nothing specific comes to mind.”
Although he did have another shot a few days later in the 200 breast, Criste didn’t make it into semifinals, and realized quickly it was time to move onto the next phase of his life.
Now, almost 7 years removed from that final race, Criste said when he thinks about his swimming days, he realizes the tremendous lifelong friendships he has because of the sport.
Recently, one of his Stanford teammates got married, and when he returned for the wedding, his reconnection with his teammates was instant.
“It was as if no time had passed,” said Criste, whose mom passed away in 2013. “And this happens every time we get together despite leading separate lives in distant cities.
“Some of my teammates are my best friends to this day. We know that we can count on one another no matter the circumstances, and I am proud to call those guys my friends.”
But there were other milestones during his career that Criste looks back on with genuine fondness and gratitude – getting a scholarship to Stanford, where he was named a team captain his senior year, and swimming for the United States at World University Games among them.
And while he admits he wasn’t a natural-born swimmer – he attributes much of his success to the coaching he received from his club coach Bruce Patmos, who saw great potential in Criste – he does say he never expected anything from the sport.
And while he certainly set high expectations for himself, he swam because he loved being in the pool and he loved competing.
“I don’t regret anything about my swimming career,” he said. “What did swimming give me that I can never repay? I’m not sure I can answer that yet because I don’t think I know.
“What I can tell you is that I know I got from swimming exactly what I needed. And it helped shape me into the person I am today – a father, a husband, and a lawyer, with lifelong friends and some good memories. For that, I am certainly grateful.”