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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

The Chemistry Is Correct for a True Scholar-Athlete

December 22, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

To understand some athletes, you need a record book. Others, a copy of the criminal code.

With Annette Salmeen, bring a dictionary.

"And then we made an extemporaneous speech," said the UCLA swimmer in a recent conversation.

Extemporaneous: Impromptu . . . is applied especially to an unmemorized speech given from an outline or notes. We couldn't do that alone.

Salmeen could.

The reason being, she is anything but extemporaneous.

It is this careful, calculated championship mind that makes her southern California's top college athlete of 1996.

Just when we thought we knew all about top southern California college athletes.

Cheating on tests and lying about them. Beating each other up during practice. Taking money from agents. Trading in school-issued equipment for personal stuff.

Those things happened to only a small percentage of local collegians, but little else made this newspaper this year. Barrels of perfectly good ink wasted on idiots.

Annette Salmeen? Five paragraphs. All year. Not one photo.

We think we knew local college athletes until we meet her.

She was recently one of 32 students nationwide to win a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, the only winner from an area college.

Which, by itself, might cause the reader to say, "Big deal, another nerd."

Except five months ago this nerd also won an Olympic gold medal.

First in sports, first in school, this anonymous chemistry major has suddenly been promoted into a league with the likes of Pat Haden.

"I've never heard of him," Salmeen said.

Even better.

A 22-year-old college student who not only has her priorities straight, but her TV off and her face turned from popular culture to more important things.

Like finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

Until leaving to England next summer to study at Oxford University with the other Rhodes Scholars, Salmeen will work in a UCLA biochemistry lab studying the structure of a protein involved in the nervous system.

It's easy to tell which lab. It's the one with the little shrine to Salmeen in the window.

That, and the exaggerated bows of the water polo team whenever they pass her, are about the only campus recognition she receives.

Everyone knows the center on the basketball team, the football quarterback.

What's so exciting about the woman with the highest grade-point average (3.92) among all student athletes?

It is this: Annette Salmeen has figured out the secret to making athletics work for her, instead of the other way around.

She began swimming at age eight because it was a fun diversion from school, which was important in an Ann Arbor, Mich., household led by a research scientist (Dad) and math teacher (Mom).

She continued swimming because soon she learned that reaching goals in the pool helped give her the courage to pursue them in other places.

"Swimming taught me the values of appreciating daily rewards . . . what I learned there translated into my schoolwork," she said.

During long stretches in the pool, while others were just thinking about finishing, she would be thinking about finishing faster than an arbitrarily set time.

Soon, while doing math problems at home, she would attempt to finish them without looking at the answers in the back of the book.

When told that an English class would be discussing a certain chapter the next day, she would try to read that chapter and answer the questions before the discussions.

In the 10th grade, in hopes of improving her social skills, she invented a game in which she would meet somebody new every day. She still plays those games today.

"You have daily choices, and you don't know where they will lead, but it is those choices that determine where you go," Salmeen said. "For me, it was all about those little choices."

The Olympics? Never thought much about it.

The Rhodes Scholarship? Are you kidding?

"My main goal was to use swimming and school to complement each other," she said. "The Olympics was icing. The Rhodes Scholarship may help me become a professor."

When she failed at the Olympic Trials in 1992, she simply kept swimming until the trials came around again.

When she failed to win the Rhodes award last year, she simply asked for another application.

There have been sacrifices, although she doesn't consider them sacrifices, but choices.

She is in the pool at 6 a.m., and doesn't fall into her bed until at least 11 p.m. Why watch TV if you don't even have cable? Why go to bars if you don't drink? Why waste one minute of a day filled with little games, important lessons?

"She has this innate ability to focus on something and achieve it," said Jill Buckley, one of her roommates. "She doesn't just do anything halfway."

Like rap music. She loves it, turned up loud, with lots of dancing.

Even if only in her apartment, with her roommates, surrounded by chemistry books and papers.

"Cool," Buckley said.

Not to mention, downright extemporaneous.

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