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Survivor

After Overcoming Life-Threatening Heart Disorder and Career-Threatening Back Injury, Carvin Is Back for Another Shot at Elusive Olympic Glory

August 09, 2000|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even if Chad Carvin slogs his way through the water at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Indianapolis this week and the closest he ever gets to Australia is renting a Crocodile Dundee movie, he will not be devastated.

After all, what are these trials compared to his past tribulations?

In 1995, he was training for a shot at the 1996 Summer Olympics, and his chances were so good that his trials appearance seemed a formality. Then, inexplicably, his times got slower. Depressed, he swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and was rushed to the hospital.

There, after recovering from his suicide attempt, doctors found that his poor swimming performances were caused by a life-threatening heart virus. His swimming career, he was told, was probably over.

Six months later, Carvin was back in the pool, too late for Atlanta but well on his way to regaining the form that made him one of the world's top swimmers.

Olympic dreams returned, a made-for-TV movie was seemingly in the making. Life, though, isn't so neat.

In 1997, he injured two disks in his back while skateboarding. He missed the world championships and, once again, was told that his swimming career was finished.

But again, six months later, he was back in the pool and on his way to regaining his form.

A painful deja vu.

"Considering all the things that I have been through, what I'm standing up against now kind of pales in comparison," Carvin, 26, said. "I have been through some pretty tough times and grown a lot. I'm mentally much stronger than I ever was. Training and competing are much easier knowing that I have been through all that.

"I would be extremely disappointed if I didn't make the team. But life would go on."

Sure it will. He would just prefer life's next stop to be in Sydney, Australia. Those travel arrangements are what the Laguna Hills High and Arizona graduate hopes to book at the trials this week, when the top two swimmers in each event qualify for the Olympics.

"I am really ready for this meet," Carvin said. "I have trained harder than I ever have in my life. I know the performances are there. They are in me. It's just a matter of getting them out."

His first exorcism attempt will be today in the 400-meter freestyle. He won that event at the World Short Course Championships in Athens last March. He was locked and loaded for that meet and his performance proved it. He also swam the anchor leg in the 800 freestyle relay, helping set a world record.

His performances in Greece elevated him back to elite status. He enters the trials as a favorite in both the 200 and 400 freestyles.

Of course, his career thus far is a stark reminder that nothing is for certain.

"The past being what it is, I would be the last to say things are looking good," said Mission Viejo Nadadore Coach Bill Rose, who trains Carvin. "We'll find out when he swims. But I'll tell you right now, he has done everything I've asked him to do in training. His whole demeanor is better than I have ever seen."

*

Swimming is fun for Carvin. It wasn't before the 1996 Olympic trials. His rise in the sport was at light-speed, his fall even quicker.

He finished ninth in the 400 and 1,500 freestyles at the 1992 Olympic trials at age 18 and went away mad that he wasn't in the top eight to qualify for the finals. He was young and versatile, as dangerous in the 200 as he was in the 1,500. For fun, he entered rough-water ocean swims.

By 1995, he was ranked second in the world in the 200 and 400 freestyles.

But in the fall, Carvin, then at Arizona, began to slip. His performances were poor and a slew of medical tests failed to find the reason.

"Everything was building toward the 1996 trials and my form and feelings were spiraling down hill," he said. "Everything was out of control. I had no answers to why this was happening."

His solution was over-the-counter sleeping pills. His roommate found Carvin conscious but groggy. He was rushed to the hospital.

"The phone call came and it was completely out of the blue," said Judie Carvin, his mother. "Chad had been dealing with everything on his own. We didn't even know he wasn't feeling well."

Said Carvin: "It is something I'm not proud of at all. I didn't know where else to turn. Everyone handles pressure differently. Unfortunately, that's how I handled it in that instance."

Doctors discovered he had cardiomyopathy, a virus that attacks the heart. Carvin greeted the news almost as if he had won a gold medal.

"The minute they diagnosed Chad, I could see a difference in him," Judie said. "He was almost happy. He said, 'I'm not crazy. There is something wrong with my heart that they can fix.' "

Part of "fixing" his heart meant being immobile for 90 days. Carvin compared it to having a broken arm that needed to be set. His cast was a bed.

There was little to do, except read his fan mail. President Clinton sent him a get-well card, as did Tom Hanks.

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