- Mike Grimala, ESPNHS
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This story appeared in the Bay Area edition of the Jan./Feb. ESPN RISE Magazine.
Shayne Fleming knew he was cut out for swimming after his first competitive race.
Six years old at the time, Fleming remembers lining up for the 25-yard backstroke in his youth summer league. Unbeknownst to little Shayne, his parents had invited all their relatives to come and watch his first race.
"I was in the lane next to the side of the pool," recalls Fleming. "The race starts and I get about halfway when I notice my cousins and relatives standing there. So I saw them and got excited and stopped to say hi. I was stopped there for about five or 10 seconds before my parents got me going again."
Despite the break in the action, Fleming still finished first.
Now that he's learned how to tune out the poolside distractions, Fleming has really taken off. The San Jose Valley Christian (San Jose, Calif.) senior is a member of the USA Junior National Team, and last January he had the best 18-under times in two races at the USA Swimming National Championships.
Fleming is also a six-time CCS champion and is No. 10 in the CollegeSwimming.com Class of 2010 rankings. He committed to Cal in November.
"I've been coaching swimming for 44 years," says Valley Christian coach Cathy Manthey, "and Shayne is definitely up at the top of my list. In high school, you're only allowed to swim two individual events, otherwise I could put him in just about any event and he would win."
The focus he lacked in his first race is now Fleming's greatest strength. His ability to concentrate suits him well in his specialty events, the 50 and 100 freestyle. Let your mind wander during one of those sprints, and you're likely to finish last.
"You don't want to think at all during the race," says Fleming. "You start analyzing and it changes your stroke. So before the race, I'm thinking about everything, but once the starter goes off, I just settle in and focus on hitting my marks."
After that early hiccup at age 6, Fleming got the mental approach to swimming down pat. The physical aspect was pure luck.
His father played collegiate basketball and his mother was a college volleyball player (both at San Jose State), and when Fleming reached age 12, his genetics kicked in.
"I'd always been somewhat big in comparison to most people," says Fleming, "but when I was 12, I shot up about five or six inches. It was a pretty big growth spurt."
With the added length to his frame, his times in the pool dropped significantly. As Fleming got used to his body and learned to harness the advantages of a longer reach, he continued to get faster.
By the time he got to Valley Christian as a freshman, he was a 6-foot-8 phenom. He won individual CCS titles in the 50 free and 100 free that year, defended successfully as a sophomore, then blew his own marks out of the water last season.
As a junior, he set a CCS record by winning the 50 free with a time of 19.89, and he set a state record in the 100 free by swimming a 43.71.
Manthey says Fleming's height, combined with his work ethic, helps make him one of the nation's best swimmers.
"For the races he swims, it's definitely an advantage," says Manthey. "It's physiological. He's got a very long wingspan, so that helps him pull more water, and there's little drag. And he works very hard on the technical aspects."
At the USA National Championships/World Championship Trials last January, Fleming competed against the best in the world (Michael Phelps won three events) and performed admirably. He came in 16th in the 50 free and 43rd in the 100 free, but he finished first among all high schoolers in both events.
Fleming took the competition as a learning experience.
"Being the fastest in my age group was cool," says Fleming. "The first time I did one of those big meets was three summers ago. I did one race -- the 50 free -- and I came in dead last. I was looking around at all the guys saying, 'I know him, he's a world champion.'
"Now I don't think about it anymore, so it's good to have that experience. The more you go against the best, the more confident you get. Now I just want to swim fast and see how well I can do."
Fleming isn't close to reaching his physical peak. Currently 190 pounds, there's still room for the lanky 17-year-old to gain weight when he gets to Cal. A more serious strength-training program could give him added power and allow him to seriously contend at the big meets.
"I can definitely see him being an NCAA champion and going all the way to the Olympics," says Manthey. "He's got the talent, the work ethic and the competitiveness, and getting into a top-notch college program will only help him."
But despite his eye-popping performance at the National Championships (and the potential Olympic implications), Fleming isn't looking too far ahead.
"Everyone talks about the Olympics and I'd love to make the Olympic team, but there's a lot of things that come first," Fleming says. "The Trials will be in the middle of my sophomore year (of college), and I'm gonna go for it. But you never know for sure. I've seen guys get sick before the Trials and it's all over. Who knows what will happen?"
So for now, Fleming is focused on having a strong senior season. He wants to defend his two individual CCS titles and win a pair of relay titles with his teammates as well. Also, the national high school records for the 50 free (19.49) and the 100 free (43.05) are in play this year.
Once Fleming sees the finish line, nothing can distract him.