MISSION VIEJO — For most competitive swimmers, timing is everything. A fingernail scraping a touch pad hundredths of seconds ahead of the next guy can be the difference between an Olympic medal and telling your grandchildren about what might have been.
So they spend most of their lives looking at the clock. Often, however, the calendar is the greater foe.
Few swimmers maintain their dominance for more than a couple of years and even the elite usually can point to one record-setting season as the crest of their career. In this sport, you're swimming's new wave one day but never that far off from being pulled down by an undertow of young talent.
The fall from grace can be especially painful if you don't hit your peak during the Olympics. There have been lots of great swimmers between Olympic Games, but you can't name any.
Eric Diehl wants you to remember his name. He wants it so bad he's putting off his college education a year. He's eating "green sludge" shakes, laced with seaweed and barley and clam extract. And, of course, he's dragging himself through the obligatory several miles of laps every day.
And Diehl is only 18. He figures to have as good a chance as anyone to still be competitive in 1996. But that hasn't stopped him from taking a do-or-die approach into the Olympic Trials, which begin Sunday in Indianapolis.
"Four years is a long time," he said. "I could break my leg and never be able to swim again. Sure, I'm pretty early in my career and it's not like I know this is my last meet or even my last shot at an Olympics.
"But I really want to make this team. There's no nonchalant attitude here. You've got to seize the day."
Sunday, Diehl will line up with America's best in the 200-meter freestyle, his best event. He will swim in the 400-meter freestyle Wednesday.
Four swimmers make the team in the 200 instead of the normal two because of the four-man 800-meter freestyle relay team. But Diehl--whose gold-medal time in the 200 freestyle (1 minute 49.67 seconds) at the 1991 Pan Am Games was the fourth-fastest in the United States last year--says the competition for the four spots will be fierce.
"Four spots doesn't take any pressure off," he said. "It just means I have better odds than some people because they're taking four from my event. But so little time separates the top five or six Americans in the event that it's going to be incredibly competitive to get one of those spots.
"And you have to swim out of your mind in the morning (qualifying events) just to get into the finals. There's no holding back. That's the way I'm looking at it."
Considering that most U.S. swimmers say there is more pressure at the Trials than in the Games themselves, that's probably a wise approach.
"I hear it's a pretty big mental game out there," Diehl said, managing a smile. "I'm trying to prepare myself for a really high-pressure situation. I'm trying not to be too naive about it, but at the same time not overwhelm myself.
"I know it's going to be really intense, but there's no way to really know until I experience it."
Terry Stoddard, Diehl's coach with the Mission Viejo Nadadores, doesn't think Diehl will wilt under the pressure, though.
"They're all going for those same tenths and hundredths of seconds," he said. "There are only three people in the event who have ever been faster, so if he keeps his focus forward and looks at the people in front of him, he's got a real good chance."
Like a lot of swimmers before him, Diehl made the trek to Mission Viejo in January of 1989 with visions of gold medals dancing in his head.
He had wanted to quit the sport at 11, but his mother, Gaby, used a little bit of logic and momentarily pulled parental rank.
"I was in fifth grade," he said. "I'd ride my bike home from school with my friends and they'd all be doing something and I'd always have to say, 'Nah, I've got a workout.' And guys would want me to spend the night on Friday and I'd have to say, 'Nah, I've got a meet.'
"When you're at that age, stuff like that is important. Swimming wasn't as fun as it could have been. I wanted to quit and my mom said, 'If you want to quit, that's fine. But you have to wait until the meet at the end of the season. It doesn't make sense to do all this work and quit now.'
"Well, I had a great meet, won the 50 freestyle and I've never thought about quitting again since."
When he outgrew his program in Fort Worth, Diehl and his mother moved to Mission Viejo. His older brother and father still live in Texas. He misses them, but then he's familiar with the sacrifices required to further his career.
Sure, he gets up before dawn and swims more miles every day then some people drive. But he also knows the pain of working out when it feels as if your muscles have turned to Jell-O and no one can tell you why.
After nine months of struggling through workouts, Diehl was diagnosed as having Epstein-Barr Syndrome last summer. Among a host of other symptoms, general fatigue is a common symptom.