The workout times became slower and slower. This was a mystery.
Chad Carvin's skills were leaving him, and he did not know why.
He was 21 years old, and he had a schedule, a plan, that was
going to put him in the pool at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta,
but the plan wasn't working.
He was going in reverse. He was swimming worse every day instead
"It started in the latter part of October, 1995," says Frank
Busch, Carvin's coach at Arizona. "First there was one bad
workout at the end of the week, and you said, 'O.K., a bad
workout, that's natural.' Then the next week, two bad workouts.
Then the next...something was not right. I said, 'We better get
you checked out.'"
What was wrong? Carvin was not some bug-eyed dreamer, overdosed
on too many Bud Greenspan highlight films about a guy going for
the gold and standing on the victory podium with tears in his
eyes as the Stars and Stripes is pulled up the flagpole. Carvin
was a worker, a doer. Only three months earlier he had won the
200-meter freestyle and finished second in the 400 and 1,500
frees at the '95 summer national championships, against the
same people he would have to meet in the Olympic trials in March
1996. He was a contender to be the U.S.'s best distance swimmer.
What was wrong?
Maybe desert fever....
Maybe...nothing. He went for medical tests. The tests were all
negative. He was told he was in terrific shape. Just look at his
body. He was 6'2", 170 pounds, perfect. Even if he didn't feel
The Pac-10 championships were coming up, the beginning of the
push toward the trials. Busch suggested 10 days of rest rather
than high-performance training before the Pac-10 meet. Carvin
rested, then finished no better than second in his four events.
There was something missing. He always had been a big finisher.
That was his strength. The big finish was not there, even when
"By now it's late November, early December, time to really get
going for the trials," Busch says. "We tried, four or five days
in a row. It was just a disaster."
What was wrong? Swimming had always been easy for Carvin. His
parents, Joe and Judy, had sent him for his first lesson when he
was five months old. They lived in Laguna Hills, Calif., and
were beach people, water people. Swimming was a necessity. When
Chad was six years old, he had begged to be on a team, in a
program. Judy had said, "O.K., but just for the summer." That
was a big laugh. "Endless summer," Judy says. He had kept
swimming, and he had won at every level.
The sport had become the dominant part of his life, his
performance determining his disposition, touching everything he
thought or did. Now that his performance was terrible, his life
was terrible. Never a big talker, never easy in sharing his
emotions, he fought this new fight inside himself. If there was
nothing wrong with his body, then there must be something wrong
with his mind. If there was something wrong with his mind.... He
tried all the approaches he could in this athletic age of simple
T-shirt philosophies such as WINNERS NEVER QUIT AND QUITTERS
NEVER WIN. He tried fewer laps, more laps, changed his diet.
He went to the only option he saw remaining. On a Tuesday
morning in December 1995, he took a bunch of sleeping pills and
tried to kill himself.
"He missed practice on Monday, something he never did, and when
he didn't show up on Tuesday, I sent his roommate back to the
apartment to get him," Busch says. "His roommate called and said
he couldn't wake Chad up. I went over, and we took him to the
hospital. I was still at the hospital when his roommate went
back to the apartment and found all these empty bottles of
sleeping pills. He called me in tears."
"It just wasn't like Chad to do something like that," Judy says,
remembering the phone call from Busch and the hurried trip to
Tucson. "He was never a kid with a dark side. He wasn't like
"Swimming, I guess, was too important in my life," Chad says. "I
was thinking only in negatives. I realized, when I woke up, when
I saw the trouble I'd caused, the pain people were in, that I
hadn't done the right thing. I saw how fragile life is."
It clearly was time for more extensive tests. The body of a
world-class athlete was speaking, screaming that something was
wrong. The athlete had amplified the words most alarmingly.
Somebody had to translate what this frightening sort of body
The process was remarkably fast. Two days after he had tried to
commit suicide, Carvin had an answer. The first giveaway was an
EKG test that was abnormal--which led to another test, an
echocardiogram to determine the functioning of the heart. The
echocardiogram gave a diagnosis.
"You do have something wrong with you," Dr. Richard Liebowitz,
an internist and assistant professor at the University of
Arizona Medical Center in Tucson, told Carvin. What should have
been dire news--that Carvin had a virus in his heart, a type of
cardiomyopathy--was strangely comforting to the swimmer. He
hadn't been imagining things, thank you very much. His heart was
pumping at only about a third of its capacity. That was why he
It didn't matter that there is no prescribed treatment for the
disease, that it is one of the many viral mysteries that exist,
that the word transplant was mentioned early to Carvin. He had
an opponent now. He was relieved.
"Mentally, everything became positive," Carvin says. "Just like
Liebowitz argued against surgery, against a cardiologist's
recommendation to perform a biopsy on Carvin's heart. Why not
use the years of conditioning, the level of fitness that Carvin
had attained? Why not see what this athletic body could do in
this competition? Liebowitz prescribed medication--ACE
inhibitors, which have been known to prolong the lives of heart
patients--and advised 90 days of complete rest, with tests to be
performed again at the end of that time.
Carvin went to bed and did not leave often. At first he slept 13
hours, 15 hours a day and took naps on the side. He ate, played
video games, went back to sleep. This continued for about a
month, until school began again and he took two courses, driving
around the campus with a sticker for the handicapped on his car,
returning to the apartment to sleep some more.
Somewhere in the second half of the 90 days he noticed a change.
He didn't need to sleep as much anymore. He started looking at
his skateboard. He started to look at his competition bike. His
body was talking to him again.
By the 90th day, sometime that March, he didn't need the tests
to tell him anything. He just knew.
The virus was gone.
"You know, this is nice, wonderful, but I see it in a whole
different way," Judy Carvin said at the Tracy Caulkins
Competition Pool in Nashville last Saturday, the first day of
the summer Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships. "The
important thing, really, is just that Chad is here, with us, not
how well he swims. You go through what we've gone through--women
would try to be encouraging, telling me things like, 'I know
someone who had a transplant, and he lived for eight more
years'--and it gives you a reality check in an instant. You
realize what's really important."
But Chad Carvin is more than just here. Though he missed the
Olympics and didn't return to intercollegiate competition during
his senior year at Arizona, he made a large splash at February's
spring nationals. There, Carvin won four events: the 200, 400
and 1,500 freestyles and the 400 individual medley. In nationals
history, only two other swimmers, Olympic gold medalists Mark
Spitz and Tom Dolan, won four individual events at one meet.
"The doctors have told Chad that there aren't any limits," Busch
says. "He can train as hard as he wants. I say it's nothing
short of a miracle that he's swimming."
The comeback continued in Nashville. Carvin finished second in
the 200 freestyle on Saturday, a performance that qualified him
for the U.S. team that will go to the World Championships in
January in Perth, Australia. On Sunday he finished third in the
400 individual medley. He was expected to swim in two other
events in the seven-night meet, which runs through this Friday,
but his first event was encouragement enough. His time in the
200, 1:49.17, was his second-fastest ever. One year after the
Olympics he missed, he had landed where he wanted to be.
It sometimes is a crazy, whimsical thing, this living. Up and
down and up again. Crazy. You want something, really want it,
and it's taken away. You adjust to that fact, accept it
and--wait a minute--here you are. Crazy.
"I wasn't thinking about swimming at this level again when I was
in that bed," Carvin said after his 200. "I wasn't thinking
about swimming at all."
Here he is. He says he felt good during his race. His words. His
body's words. He felt good.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Carvin was buoyed by his showing in Nashville, including a third in the 400 individual medley. [Chad Carvin swimming]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER A forward-looking Carvin no longer dwells on the Olympic Games he missed because of his illness. [Chad Carvin]