- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

If Wally Dicks writes a book about his quest to swim in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, it would be called, "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Part II."
By competitive swimming standards, Dicks is ancient. The Fairfax, Va., resident is 37, and they have a place for swimmers who are 37. It's called the masters program.
It is not in the Olympic trials.
But that's where the Langley High School graduate will be Aug. 9, when the trials take place in Indianapolis in the pool against the elite 100-meter breaststrokers in the country, some of whom are about half of Dicks' age.
Of course, he is a long shot to earn a place on the U.S. team for Sydney. But then, it was a long shot for any 37-year-old swimmer to make it to the trials.
Since they started keeping records of such things in 1970, the oldest swimmer to compete in the Olympic trials was Rowdy Gaines, who was 36 when he swam four years ago. Mark Spitz tried a comeback in 1992 when he was 42, but he never made it to the trials.
"It's extremely difficult to compete on a world-class level at that age," said Preston Levi, director of the Henning Library at the International Swimming Hall of Fame. "Often when you reach 31 or 32, that's the end of your peak. What [Dicks] is doing is a wonderful accomplishment."
Said Dicks: "It's an honor just to make it to the trials," he said.
But the closer Dicks gets to the trials, the more confident he becomes.
"If you asked me three weeks ago about it, I would have said I was just glad to make it," he said. "But then recently I swam in a meet where I took eight-tenths off by best time. I think I will swim strong, and my goal now is to make it through the first round to the semifinals."
Those are dreams usually reserved for younger men, dreams Dicks has had before. He received a full scholarship to swim at the University of Tennessee in 1981 and wanted to compete in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
But he had a bad experience with the coach at Tennessee and tore knee cartilage. Dicks left after his freshman year and transferred to Indiana, which also had recruited him out of high school. He redshirted a year but began to lose his desire to compete.
"I had such a bad experience in Tennessee that I had lost much of my desire and the fun of the sport," Dicks said.
So Wally Dicks went dry literally. He gave up on the sport he once loved so much and on his Olympic dreams. He continued school at Tennessee, got a bachelor's degree in environmental biology and graduated in 1986.
Dicks went to work at his family's business in Northern Virginia. His mother, Elizabeth Dicks, had a growing health food store business. Meanwhile, to stay in shape, he lifted weights and rode a bike, exercises he started after he gave up swimming in college.
It seemed Dicks had left the pool behind. Fourteen years went by without any training or competitive swimming.
"But about four years ago I was looking for a new outlet to stay in shape," he said. "I was in pretty good shape, but I wanted to get my cholesterol down, and I was looking for a change."
So he jumped back in the water, working out a few days a week at the Oak Marr Recreation Center.
"It was a very comfortable feeling, like an old shoe I found after it was missing for many years," Dicks said. "But I had no intention of competing. It was the farthest thing from my mind."
That is until one of the swimmers in the masters program at Oak Marr invited Dicks to join them.
"I was hesitant," he said. "I didn't want to get into an organized thing. But he said it was a very laid back atmosphere."
Dicks gave it a try and discovered he enjoyed the people he was meeting. In fact, he enjoyed being with one of the other masters swimmers Barbara Crawford so much he married her.
What surprised Dicks, though, was how much he enjoyed competing again and how well he was doing.
"I did a few local masters meets and did pretty well," he said. "I was amazed at some of the times I was turning in training just three times a week."
Dicks swam in masters meets until he reached the 1997 national championships, where he wound up winning titles in the 30-34 age group in the 50-yard breaststroke, the 100-yard breaststroke and the 200-yard breaststroke.
"I was very curious at that point," he said. "I knew I was going into the next age bracket and thought maybe I could take a run at some of those national and world championships."
Dicks set two world records in the 50 meters and 100 meters in 1998 and compared his times to those posted for qualification for the Olympic trials.
"I realized I had an opportunity to qualify, and that's when the quest really began," he said. "I was close, and I knew I was getting a second chance."
He began working out more seriously with Greg York of the York Swim Club in Oakton and Peter Ward, the George Mason University swim coach. Dicks continued working at his family business and would leave work at 6 p.m. to work out two to three hours nearly every day. He stopped weightlifting, and the 6-foot-3 Dicks dropped from 205 pounds to as low as 172.
So when the time came to qualify for the trials, Dicks was ready, turning in a 1:05 in the 100 meters at the U.S. senior nationals in April .39 seconds under the Olympic trials qualifying standard. That set the stage for him to become the oldest known competitor in the history of the swimming trials and gave him a second chance at his dream.
"I appreciate it more now than I did when I was a kid," Dicks said. "My love for the sport is huge, and I am enjoying it more than ever."

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