John Jenkins sat disconsolately at last year's Southern Section swimming championships, a reluctant spectator wondering what might have been.
"I went over behind the blocks and watched all the guys do their 50- (yard freestyles) and 100s and said, 'Aw, I could have beaten these guys,' " Jenkins said.
It wasn't injury or illness that kept him from swimming. In the middle of last season, he and four other teammates were dismissed from the Crescenta Valley High swimming team after then-Coach Chris Kaufman learned they had been drinking at a team party.
But one year later, the 6-foot-8 junior returned to the team and stole the show in those same championships.
Jenkins set a state high school record in the 50 freestyle, won the 100 freestyle and swam on two winning relay teams to lead the Falcons to the Division II championship Saturday at Belmont Plaza pool in Long Beach.
"If you call it a perfect performance, you can't ask for more than that," Coach Pete Loporchio said. "Certainly he was the catalyst, and the reason we won."
The performance was a triumph for the unknowns--Jenkins and the Crescenta Valley team, which had only one swimmer qualify for the championships last year.
"The announcer would say our name every time: '. . . and Crescenta Valley!? ' I was waiting for him to say, 'Who are these people?' "
The Falcons shed their anonymity by winning, and Jenkins--who was "kind of a no-name at CIF this year," according to Loporchio--fashioned a title for himself: the fastest high school swimmer in state history.
He won the 50 freestyle in the preliminaries Thursday in 20.55 seconds, lowering his personal best by almost one half-second and breaking the state record of 20.65, set in 1991 by Eric Diehl of Mission Viejo. Jenkins then lowered the mark to 20.53 in the final.
He swam a split of 19.79, the fastest in state high school history, on the anchor leg of the winning 200 medley relay and won the 100 freestyle in 45.92. He also came from three body lengths behind during the anchor leg of the 400 freestyle relay to win the event, clinching the Falcons' first section title and giving Jenkins a measure of satisfaction for last year's disappointment.
"It was kind of a revenge season for last year," Jenkins said. "It was the pinnacle of my career."
He doesn't sound bitter about the decision to boot him off the team, though he didn't agree with it.
"I tried my hardest to come back last year, but that's just life," he said. "We didn't want things to get ugly so we just let it lie and tried to deal with it in a positive manner."
He immediately started swimming with his club team, Industry Hills Aquatics Club, and waited eagerly for his junior season.
"The fact that he didn't get to swim in CIF last year was maybe a little extra incentive to improve himself," Loporchio said.
Jenkins' improvement was obvious. What is intriguing is that he knows he could have improved even more had he not played basketball.
Because he played on the Crescenta Valley basketball team the past three seasons, Jenkins, a reserve center, joined the swim team later than the others. He swam only sporadically with his club team during the basketball season.
This basketball season the Falcons advanced to the playoff semifinals, delaying Jenkins' return to the pool until early March.
"My Industry Hills coach (Mike Gautreau) is just going crazy thinking what I could do if I was in the water for four or five (consecutive) months," Jenkins said.
What almost certainly would happen is he would swim even faster.
"When you're out of the water for long periods of time, the second nature of it isn't there," Loporchio said. "His start and turn techniques have room for improvement. Those areas need repetition."
Jenkins knows he sacrifices lower times for the enjoyment of playing basketball.
"It's kind of neat to be on a team sport instead of an individual sport, but I wished I had gotten in the water a little earlier," he said. "Then I could have gotten closer to the national high school record (in the 50 freestyle)."
That record is 20.01 seconds. Jenkins wants to become the first high school swimmer to break the 20-second mark. He and his coaches say the potential is there.
"I'm pretty raw, I'd say," he said. "I have a lot of room to improve on my technique--my dive and my turns--and I consider myself quite thin. I need to get on the weights. I think I can drop a considerable amount of time."
"Who knows how fast he can go?" he said. "I know he can be a national- or even a world-class swimmer. I compare him to (6-7 Olympic gold medalist) Michael Gross of Germany because he's got that long arm span. The stroke becomes very efficient because of the leverage. Sometimes he might even amaze himself with how fast he can become."
But Jenkins is unsure to what depths he wants to go in trying to realize such heady predictions at a young age.
"I really don't want to think about it because it kind of gets me nervous," he said. "It's like, should I pursue trying to make the Olympics or should I play basketball for one more year and have fun?"
For now, he wants to qualify for the U.S. senior national meet in Austin, Tex., in July. He needs to swim the 50-meter freestyle in 20.49 to qualify. Beyond that, he knows he wants to swim for an NCAA Division I program, as does his sister, Mary Ellen, a freshman at Washington.
But he is aware his potential could extend beyond the college ranks.
"Mike Gautreau said I could be one of the fastest in the world if I put my heart into it," he said. "That'd be awesome."