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Propelled by a Will to Win : In or Out of the Pool, Larsen Full of Fight

July 08, 1993|THERESA SMITH MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like the cuddly stuffed tigers she clutches at swim meets, Alexis Larsen is adorable. Her conversation is sprinkled with giggles and she greets strangers and friends with a shy smile.

Yet the competitive side of Larsen's personality is akin to the flesh-eating tigers which roam the grasslands of Nepal. She is fierce, relentless, and she carries the tigers as symbols of her unyielding nature.

A scowl replaces the swimmer's nervous giggle when she describes her will to win.

"I just can't stand it when someone beats me," said Larsen, who will begin her senior year at Harvard-Westlake High in the fall. "It's so irritating. You just get so mad, you have to beat them."

Larsen, 16, has the eye of the tiger. Seemingly, she won't allow anything--including a hyperactive thyroid--halt her rise from flailing 8-and-under to national champion.

Her coach, Bud McAllister, of Calabasas-based CLASS Aquatics, believes she was born with a competitive mentality.

Her mother, Shelby, subscribes to the nurture theory.

Shelby Larsen believes that all those summers spent sinking to the bottom, hanging onto the lane ropes, and finishing races after the other swimmers hoisted themselves out of the pool instilled in her daughter a loathing of losing.

Certain of her last-place fate, Larsen rarely entered meets, yet she happily sloshed through the practices. In similar fashion, she did not distinguish herself in tap dancing class, cello recitals, T-Ball games or soccer matches.

By 1989, one year after the Larsen family moved from Connecticut to Pacific Palisades, Alexis dropped all of her other pursuits for swimming.

She switched from Team Santa Monica to CLASS a year later. Although McAllister told her developmental swimmers were expected to attend nine practices a week, she insisted on attending 11.

"There may be kids with a lot more talent," she told McAllister, "but I will work harder."

The extra practices, an increase in yardage and intensity, and McAllister's decision--based on Larsen's lack of speed--to transform her from a sprinter to a distance freestyler, led to extraordinary improvement.

In four months, she went from local qualifying-meet participant to national-championship qualifier, becoming one of a handful of American swimmers to bypass the zone and junior national time standards in posting her first national time standards.

Suddenly, Larsen's view of herself as a swimmer was askew.

"It was really weird," she said. "I guess I never really thought about myself being that good."

Unfortunately, her view from the top was blocked two months later by more pressing concerns.

During a strep test, Peter Jensen, Larsen's family doctor, discovered a small nodule on her thyroid gland. It was not cancerous, but other tests showed the early stages of a hyperactive thyroid. Given the choice between radiation therapy and surgery, the Larsens chose surgery.

When they broke the news to Alexis, she wept.

"I cried because I thought I'd never be able to swim again or that I'd never be able to swim as fast," she said.

In tigress fashion, she dried her tears, set her jaw, and scheduled her operation for the only week in August between the national championships and the start of her sophomore year.

In the four-month interim, she took propylthiouracil, a drug that suppresses the thyroid hormone. That hormone governs metabolic rate and the activities of most of the cells in the body.

Left undetected, as was the case with Olympic sprinter Gail Devers, a thyroid disorder can cause fatigue, weight loss, menstrual irregularities and hair loss.

The drug left Larsen sluggish. Her muscles tired easily, she had difficulty recovering between practice sessions and her endurance waned. Yet her plucky attitude and adherence to the demanding practice schedule paid off.

Inspired by a boisterous, overflow crowd at USC in July, 1991, she lowered her career best in the 400-meter freestyle to 4 minutes 16.89 seconds in a second-place finish at the U.S. Olympic Festival.

A few weeks later, surgeons removed half of her thyroid, leaving a thin scar across her slender neck. True to her unflappable nature, Larsen is oblivious to the necklace-shaped reminder of her ordeal.

"A lot of people ask me about it," she said. "I don't care. I never really think about it."

Because of the operation, her thyroid is underactive. For the rest of her life, she must account for 50% of the hormone her thyroid no longer produces by taking a daily dosage of synthroid, a replacement hormone.

Larsen began taking synthroid in November, 1991, but it took nearly a year to pinpoint a dosage that would allow her to train at a world-class level.

Too much or too little synthroid left Larsen with the same listless feeling. Four hours of distance freestyle did the same thing. Consequently, she couldn't distinguish between the fatigue caused by training and the fatigue caused by the wrong dosage.

"I tried not to blame anything on the medication," she said.

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