Swimming for gold

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July 26, 2012, 10:28 pm
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(NECN: Ally Donnelly) - It's early for a 20-something on a Friday morning - but as Thoreau said, "To be awake is to be alive," so Alex Meyer plunges into Walden Pond.

"It's just a lot more free feeling than being confined to a lane," Meyer said. "If it's a little choppy or windy, you get kinda bumped around a lot, which I kind of like."
 
Meyer, a former Harvard University swimmer who still lives in Cambridge, heads to London soon to race in the 10 km open water swim in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

"It requires a lot of mental energy as well as physical," the 24-year-old swimmer said.
 
The 5-foot-11, 155-pound Meyer will be the only American man to race the two hour, six-lap slog in The Serpentine lake in London's Hyde Park.

He says open water is a world away from swimming in the pool - littered with distractions that nibble at your focus.

"Whether it be people touching your feet too much, there's something wrong with your suit or - really little things tend to magnifying themselves," he said.

Harvard Swim Coach Tim Murphy gruffs out instructions from a neon kayak. He's coached Meyer for six years since his undergrad days.

"He was not one of the better distance swimmers," Murphy said. "He was good, but he had people in front of him."
 
Murphy says, in the pool, Meyer's tenacity ruled all else.

"Just the day in day out competitiveness just builds up over time - the longer the race, the better he is," Murphy said.

But it's taken time. Meyer says he knew it was swimming that helped get him into Harvard - so he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder that first year. He understood the drive of athletes but not intellectuals.

"Over ambitious, pre-med, like cut-throat competitive academically which - was like - didn't make any sense to me," he said.
 
But Meyer matured on campus and in the water, thanks in part to his friend Fran Crippen, who he became close with as the two traveled for the U.S. swim team in 2009.

"Really loyal friend, a tried and true champion and taught me a lot about the sport," Meyer said.
 
Crippen drowned in a 10 km World Cup race in 2010. Meyer was the first person to realize his friend was missing in the reportedly 80 degree waters in the United Arab Emirates, but bristles when pressed to talk about the day.

"I mean I don't see a whole lot of point in going over the details," his voice trailed.

Meyer says the best way to honor his friend, Crippen's family - and himself - is to do the right thing: to make the sport they shared safer.

"He just couldn't finish the race cuz it was just too hot - shouldn't have started in first place," Meyer said.
 
Meyer has pledged to get the international body that oversees open water swim events to more closely monitor water temperatures, have more lifeguards and more targeted safety plans.

"We need to set a good example here in the U.S. - hold safe races here, and show that the sport doesn't have to be dangerous," he said.
 
But, for now, the focus is on London.

With opening ceremonies in just days, Meyer would like nothing better than to be done with media and hoopla.

"Like, the most embarrassing, emasculating photo shoot of my life," quipped Meyer.

Meyer figures prominently in a new "bookazine" being put out by US Weekly.

"I mean, it's US Weekly. It's for 15, 16-year-old girls - that's all I'll say. They wanted me to be, do all these things. These poses - they kept saying, like, 'Be cute, be playful,'" he said red-faced.
 
In real life, Meyer is playful and thoughtful and smart - smart enough to know that a medal is not a sure thing.

"It's one of those sports on any given day, anything can happen," he said. He knows that in the blink of an eye everything can change. So he'll keep with him a photo of Fran Crippen - as he always does - taking London together.

Tags: massachusetts, London, Cambridge, swimmer, athlete, 2012 Summer Olympics, Alex Meyer, open water swim
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