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After Two Years, Drought Is Over for Foothill's Katz : Swimming: Changes in mechanics and mental outlook pay off for sophomore.


TUSTIN — A batter has a slump. A dieter hits a plateau. A center shoots air balls. No athlete is immune to the occasional dry spell.

"I know everyone has their ups and downs," said Dave Katz, "I just didn't think it would last two years."

Katz, now a sophomore at Foothill High and qualified to compete in the Southern Section swimming championships in Long Beach this week, was swimming at 3 months old and competing when he was 5 years old. By the time he was 12, he had set four national age-group records and 11 Southern California records in the breaststroke.

Then the awkward teen years hit in more ways than one. Katz, who was used to beating everyone to the wall, was struggling to keep out of the consolation heats at 13.

"It was frustrating for him, not only to not win, but to not even finish in the top eight," said his mother, Carol.

Much of his early success was credited to his stature. As a third-grader, he was 5-foot-5 and, "a foot taller than the big kids," he said.

Katz doesn't have the lean physique common among top swimmers; Carol Katz said he looks more like a football player. His size, an attribute as a youngster, stifled his progress as he matured.

"He's very well developed and has a strong build, but he lacks flexibility," said Novaquatics Coach Dave Salo, Katz's club coach for a little more than a year.

When Katz rejoined Novaquatics--he had been with the program under another coach but left briefly for Mission Viejo--Salo knew his staff would have to change some of Katz's training.

Salo reduced his long yardage and paid specific attention to stroke mechanics. But he didn't stop there. Salo wanted to first change Katz's focus, and eventually, his philosophy.

"We wanted him to leave the baggage at the door," Salo said. "We put him in other events, so he could think about something he hadn't had success in."

When Salo suggested that Katz forgo the breaststroke and concentrate on other events, no one argued.

"After two years of frustration, it couldn't hurt," Carol Katz said with a laugh.

Unlike the prolonged slump, there was a turning point in his comeback.

It came last July. Salo had seen Katz sleepwalk through much of a qualifying meet and approached Katz before he was to compete in the 200 individual medley.

"He asked me what I thought I should do in the race," Katz said. "He had never asked me that before. Then he told me I needed to show him something as a swimmer to a coach. I was a little scared because I had to show him something ."

During their brief conversation, Salo even mentioned that Katz might want to take an extended break from the sport.

"I told him no one was making him swim; he didn't have to do it if he didn't want to," Salo said.

It was the ultimate wake-up call for Katz, who concluded he was swimming for everyone but himself.

"When I was little it was like everyone expected me to win every single race, and I expected myself to constantly win," Katz said. "Then when I didn't, I got really depressed.

"I finally realized I can't do this to please my mom or my coach or anyone else. I had to live up to what I wanted."

Katz got up and swam his lifetime best.

"He showed me some hustle and some spirit that he hadn't shown before," Salo said.

And so it has been.

Since last summer, Katz had recorded some of his best times in years. He's qualified for junior nationals for the first time, and in January, he swam the breaststroke for the first time in a year.

Salo won't predict what the future holds for Katz, but believes Katz will make an exceptional high school swimmer and has the potential and the talent to impact any college program of his choosing.

Interestingly, Katz insisted he never lost confidence through the drought. Rather, it was his self-esteem that eroded.

In his heady days as an age-group record-holder, Katz would thumb his nose as the seventh- and eighth-place swimmers touched the wall.

"When I hardly ever lost a race, I looked down on people who placed last," he said.

Now he looks back on the lean years as a well-needed exercise in humility.

"I benefited from it," he said. "If I hadn't gone through that, I might not have changed."

And the self-esteem he lost along the way has made a comeback of its own.

"It's not back 100% from a few years ago," Katz said, "but it's back 100% in a new way, based on how and why I swim."

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