Against the odds: Carvin' out an Olympic dream

It was the winter swimming season of 1995, and U.S. swimmer Chad Carvin was cruising right along.

A specialist in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle, the Southern California native had just come off an Olympic-like performance at the summer nationals with a first-place and two second-place finishes in three freestyle events. The countdown to Atlanta was underway.

Suddenly, Carvin, an elite athlete, lean and chiseled and just 21 at the time, started having trouble completing workouts. His energy was low, and he began to feel chronically lethargic and fatigued.

Carvin was sleeping well, eating right and had no previous health problems. What could be the problem? he thought.

As a battery of tests for mononucleosis, valley fever and chronic fatigue syndrome came back negative, the condition gradually worsened, as did the frustration. It got to the point where a closer examination was needed.

I was going through dizzy spells, Carvin said. At the end of that month, I couldnt train at all.

More extensive tests revealed that Carvin had contracted a virus that was attacking his heart. Eventually diagnosed as cardiomyopathy, the condition was forcing his heart to only work at 50 percent of its capacity.

Carvin, who was training at the highest level, was only getting 50 percent of the necessary oxygen and blood through his body.

Doctors told Carvin that cardiomyopathy can originate with something as innocuous as a common cold or the flu, but that it's rare for the virus to progress to attacking the heart.

Carvin's doctors prescribed 90 days of no activity, along with blood-pressure medication to ensure that his heart worked as little as possible. He was told he had a one-third chance of recovering, a one-third chance that his condition would stay the same, and a third that he would need a heart transplant.

In the meantime, Carvins Olympic dream was dashed. Ninety days on the sidelines meant he would miss the Olympic trials, making it impossible to qualify for the games.

It was never a goal of mine to compete again, Carvin said. I just wanted to get well. If anything, I just wanted to get fit again.

Carvins treatment worked. At the beginning of 1997, doctors confirmed the virus had healed. With the news, he began to get back into the pool and in February 1997, he felt he was in pretty good shape.

Unfortunately, he wasnt as fit mentally as he was physically. The fact of having just recovered from a life-threatening heart ailment was fresh on his mind.

That first year back, I was always paying attention to my heart, he recalls. I was having some weird feelings, but when I talked to a cardiologist they assured me everything was OK.

Carvin says he's gotten past having anxiety about his heart, with the help of sports psychologist Phil Towle. Towle, who works with the NFL's St. Louis Rams, has helped Carvin enhance his performance with visualization and meditation.

It wasnt meant to be, or was it?

With the heart problem behind him, it was full-speed ahead again. The 1998 World Championships were on the horizon, and the 2000 Olympics would be here before he knew it.

Then, in late 1997, Carvins quest for the Olympics was derailed again. While cruising around on skateboard a favorite pastime for Carvin's he took an awkward fall that injured his back.

I took a bad spill, and heard something snap, he said.

At first it was just a nagging pain, but it grew progressively worse. An MRI turned up four discs torn and damaged.

At that point I figured it (his Olympic swimming dream) wasnt meant to be, Carvin said. It was tougher to come back the second time. After all that training to get back to where I was, I was suddenly at ground zero again. I was devastated.

Carvin, who has a degree in finance from the University of Arizona; decided it was time to move on.

The dream returns

After some physical therapy and three months of rest and recuperation, Carvin got the swimming itch again. He realized that a career in finance could be pursued 10 years down the line, and that his mid-20s were his last chance for an Olympic gold medal.

Carvin started working out solo and was back in form two months later. Every time I have a hiatus, I seem to recover well.

Now 25, Carvin has had a successful second comeback. In November at the FINA World Cup, he clocked a 3:42.16 in the 400 freestyle for an American best. Hes also had three first-place and four second-place finishes in national competition.

Carvin says that after the back problem, he wasnt even thinking about Sydney. That all has changed. His focus on 2000 Olympic gold is as strong as ever.

I think I have a great chance in the 200- and 400 (-meter) free, Carvin said. I think Im the favorite.

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