School comes first, his parents tell him, and that has never been a problem for Ben Swartout. Not unless a 4.3 grade-point average and a 1,400 score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test can be considered a problem.
For Swartout, an amateur artist, author, auto mechanic, journalist, scuba diver and swimmer--have we missed anything?--the only problem is this 24-hour day. Too short.
"He doesn't really sit around and relax," said Susanna Dado, one of Swartout's teachers at Rio Mesa High. "On the way to the swimming meets, in the car, \o7 he does his homework.\f7 "
Swartout also did homework three weeks ago on a flight to Dallas, where he set a National Junior Olympics record by finishing the preliminary of the 500-yard freestyle in 4 minutes 24.77 seconds. And he won the 1,650-yard freestyle in 15:18.26, missing the record by four-tenths of a second.
Earlier in March, Swartout, 18, placed seventh in the 800-meter freestyle at the U.S. National championships in Indianapolis.
He has been accepted for enrollment at Harvard. And Stanford.
"He is on top of the world," Rio Mesa swim Coach Eric Gustafson said.
At his home in Camarillo, Swartout (6-foot-4, 175 pounds) reflected on his ascent through the ranks.
"When I was a freshman or sophomore I thought it would be an amazing thing to go to the (national championships)," Swartout said. "I thought I would be excited all day long. But it's relative. It's nice that I keep improving, though. I keep thinking there's no way I could go faster. Then I do.
"It's kind of reassuring because I'm not always going to be swimming. Things will change and I'll be interested in other things and I'll go on."
\o7 Excited all day long. \f7 Swartout was the boy in kindergarten who would not sit still. His coloring was done and he would pester the kid beside him.
Too much sugar for breakfast? No. That's just Ben.
His mother worried. "I despaired for a while that this was going to be one of those kids," Pam Swartout said.
The natural reaction might have been to scold Ben when he left his seat. Rather, he was rewarded when he reached his elusive goal: \o7 Sit in that chair for an hour. \f7 When he did, he was rewarded with the "mummy pin" because he loved monsters. \o7 Do your work for an hour. \f7 Mummy pin.
He sat with his mother and read children's books, rewarded with a nickel at the end of each page.
The mummy pins and nickels have been traded for other rewards such as A's and medals. Sometimes there is no reward but self-fulfillment. He can sit in his chair for hours and write fiction, lie under his 1972 Karmann Ghia for hours of renovation.
Writing long has been one of Swartout's passions. Last summer several publishers rejected his allegory of an oriental knight wandering across mysterious English territory in search of spiritual well-being.
The fantasy's theme is expressed when an angelic messenger tells the protagonist: "If you wish to save your soul, you must face your worst fears and destroy them."
\o7 Sit in that chair for an hour.
\f7 "He wants to be challenged," said Joel Gustafson, Eric's son, Swartout's friend and a standout swimmer at Buena High. "He cannot wait until medical school. He looks forward to something being real tough."
That helps explain how Swartout can endure his swimming regimen. He swims for as many as four hours a day during the week and more on Saturdays. He has been swimming regularly since grade school.
"He showed talent from the start," said Dennis Powell, Swartout's childhood coach. "And he could train harder than most."
Throughout grade school Swartout was a good backstroker, but merely good swimmers do not set National Junior Olympic records.
He was a hidden talent in the distance events until a trip to swimming camp the summer before fifth grade. Campers were timed in various events. When he returned from camp, Swartout told Powell his time in the 500-yard freestyle, an event Swartout had not yet done for Powell.
"He couldn't believe it," Swartout said. "I thought I knew all about what I was good at. I guess I didn't. . . . Next meet, he had me do the 500."
And a distance career was under way.
In August, 1990, Swartout competed in his first junior nationals and finished sixth in the 400-yard freestyle and ninth in the 800. The following March, he finished sixth in the 500 and seventh in the 1,000.
In the 1991 Southern Section championships, he finished second in the 500.
In August, 1991, he won the 400-meter freestyle for his first junior national championship. He also finished second in the 800. Later in the month Swartout competed in his first senior national and finished 20th in the 800.
Although Swartout placed seventh in the 800 at Indianapolis this year, he was consoled later in the month with the thrill of setting the National Junior Olympics record.
"It was kind of nice knowing you were the fastest ever," Swartout said.
Another mummy pin for his collection.
He is an Ivy League-caliber student and a record-holding swimmer. But at what cost?
"When I think about it, the grades I make and the times I make are going to last forever," he said. "The fun only lasts that long."
Like the day, it has its end.