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Atlanta 1996 / 9 DAYS TO THE GAMES

Taking Heart : Carvin Is on the Outside, Not Looking In at the Atlanta Games While He Is Rebuilding His Life


PHOENIX — He should have been racing in the pool with the other U.S. Olympians, worrying about nothing more weighty than who would be his roommate at the Games or trying to get tickets for family and friends.

His post-race clothing was to have been a red, white and blue warmup jacket. And "Olympian Chad Carvin," would have blared over the loudspeakers and been presented in soft focus on those omnipresent feel-good-about-the-Games television commercials.

Instead, when Chad Carvin returned to his old world recently, it was as if he had missed several acts of a real-life play. Swimming had churned along in his absence, through the Olympic trials in March. His sudden reappearance caught some of the U.S. Olympians fumbling for words at a recent meet at the Phoenix Swim Club.

"That's the most difficult thing about being here--people aren't sure what to make of me," said Carvin, who has not swum a competitive race since last fall. "They don't know what to make of me. They mostly ask how I'm doing."

The word tragedy is thrown around loosely, and even arbitrarily, when it comes to sports. Losing a game isn't tragic. Neither is losing a spot on the Olympic team.

But one of the country's best distance swimmers, Carvin, lost his chance to make the Olympic team because of life-threatening circumstances, having learned in December that he had viral cardiomyopathy after an unknown virus worked its way into the left ventricle of his heart.

Before the diagnosis, Carvin was hospitalized when his faltering health and slowing times through the fall at the University of Arizona led to despondency that culminated in his trying to overdose on over-the-counter sleeping pills in December.

His attempt to end his life actually might have saved it. Doctors ordered him to quit exercising and the complete rest helped his heart wall recover, which averted the all-too-real possibility of a heart transplant.

He has patiently answered the questions from concerned friends, family, reporters and former competitors and doesn't try to rewrite history.

"As far as the drug overdose? It's all true," he said. "I was depressed and it was a terrible time for me. I don't know what else to say.

"Everyone was real helpful. Anyone that was supporting me would do anything they could for me at any time. I talked to my roommate a bit and my parents mostly and my coach."

The outpouring of support was enormous, even including a letter from President Clinton.

With his friendly manner and the good looks of a surfer, Carvin, who lives in Laguna Hills, had always been a popular figure in the tight-knit swimming community.

"Chad Carvin doesn't have a mean bone in his body," said U.S. Olympian Brad Bridgewater of USC. "He's friends with everyone, even friendly with guys in his own events, and you don't always see that."

Before the heart ailment sidelined Carvin, he was considered a near-lock for the Olympic team in as many as four events.

His winning time of 1 minute 48.43 seconds in the 200-meter freestyle at the U.S. National Championships in August would have placed him first in that event at the U.S. Olympic trials in March. In 1995, he had the second-fastest time in the world in the 200 as well as the 400 freestyle, the 10th fastest time in the 1,500 freestyle and ninth in the 400 individual medley.

Carvin's victories these days can be measured by the calendar. He turned 22 on April 13. By then he was able to compete in mountain bike races. Last month, he ventured into a triathlon in San Diego--a one-kilometer swim, 30K bike ride and a 10K run.

But the most important day was in June, when he had his latest echogram, which showed a vastly improved heart capacity, way up from the low end of normal.

"He's almost back to being normal. It'll never be the same from the scarring of the heart," said Frank Busch, Carvin's coach at Arizona.

"He's been competing in bike races, doing a lot of stuff I don't know about. He's at home, riding in the morning, surfing in the afternoon and swimming in the late afternoon. He's such an active person, I'm not sure he could have made it, if he couldn't do these things."

It has helped him handle the prospect of the approaching Olympics and watching his friends and old rivals compete at the meet in Phoenix. His best time in the 1,500 freestyle was 15:14.54, which would have put him second at the trials behind Carlton Bruner, and he probably would have made the team in the 800 freestyle relay.

"When they talk about the fastest distance people in the world, the two American guys that made the 1,500 and what's been done across the world and in the trials recently in different countries, I'm sure he's looking at that," Busch said. "And I'm sure he has some feelings about that."

Carvin does and realizes it will be difficult once the Olympics start. He plans on watching little, if any, of the swimming on television but said he will probably read the results in the newspaper.

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