January 22, 2009

Shark in the Water

Jan. 22, 2009

By John Zant, Santa Barbara Independent

She's strong, smart, tall, blonde, beautiful, and scary. Yes, behind that smiling, friendly exterior, Anne Marie May is a shark in the water.

"She's very supportive of all the swimmers," UCSB swimming coach Gregg Wilson said. "But when she gets on the blocks, she'll rip your throat out; and then she'll say you did a nice job and be very sincere about it."

May is a third-year Gaucho swimmer who is rewriting the record books in the women's freestyle sprints.

"She's a beast," said senior Bradley Matsumoto, the Gauchos' top male freestyler. "She's very humble, but when it comes down to racing, she's got that natural killer instinct. Within minutes of the start of a race, her personality changes."

It happened at the NCAA Championships last year. May reached the finals of the 50-yard freestyle. "She was sweet and talkative before the race," Wilson said. "She was seeded seventh, which put her out in lane one. She went nuts when she hit the water and finished third."

May went to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials and exceeded expectations by qualifying for the 50-meter semifinals. "I was in the heat with Dara Torres," May said last week. "I couldn't believe I was in the waiting room with her. That woman is a gorgeous specimen. She joked about her age. She said where's her walker? She said it would tire her out to walk to the pool. It surprised me how light-hearted and fun the atmosphere was."

There could hardly be a greater gap in experience than there was between the 41-year-old Torres -- who went on to make history at Beijing, her fifth Olympics, by winning three medals -- and the 21-year-old May, who had begun competing seriously just two years earlier. She came to UCSB from Carmel without an athletic scholarship. She played water polo in her first year, and then she decided to give swimming a try.

"I call her my gift," said Wilson, in his 33rd season at UCSB. "She literally fell into my hands. We recruit 24/7 all year 'round, and Anne Marie shows up in my office and says, `Can I come out?'"

"I came here because of the school," said May, who's majoring in communications. "I didn't have a conventional swimming career. I'm really lucky to be on the team."

Wilson turned over the novice swimmer to his sprint coach, Naya Higashijima, and also enrolled her in Bob Alejo's rigorous weight-training program. Alejo left UCSB in November to take over as the Oakland A's strength coach, and his assistant Alison Parakh is currently running the Gaucho program. It has been a boon to May, who stands 5ʹ11ʺ with long, powerful limbs.

In her first year of swimming, May won the 50 and 100 freestyles at the Big West Conference Championships. "Everybody was baffled," Wilson said. "Where did she come from?" She also swam on three winning relay teams. Last year, she repeated as 50 and 100 champ, collected three more relay titles, and was named Big West Female Swimmer of the Year. In an online poll, she was chosen UCSB's Female Athlete of the Year.

Heading into the homestretch of her junior season, May has set school and conference records in the 50 (21.96 seconds) and 100 (48.83) and also helped the Gaucho women set new marks in the 200 and 400 freestyle and medley relays.

It's the team aspect of swimming that she enjoys the most. "It's what makes swimming fun," May said. "I'm surrounded by 60 friends. We're incredibly close. Everyone swims for the Gaucho next to them as much as for themselves."

The Gauchos have one remaining dual meet at home -- February 7 against Pacific -- before they compete in the conference championships in Long Beach at the end of the month. Both the men's and women's teams will be defending their meet titles.

Matsumoto will be trying to repeat as 50 and 100 freestyle champ on the men's side. With a time of 19.83 in the shorter race last year, he broke the Big West record set a decade earlier by Jason Lezak, the former Gaucho freestyler who took a bronze in the 100 at Beijing as well as winning multiple Olympic medals on U.S. relay teams.

Matsumoto attracted UCSB's attention as a promising high school swimmer in Easton, while playing tennis at the same time. A biochemistry major who intends to pursue a career in pharmacology, he is the swimming team's top scholar-athlete.

"Swimming keeps us disciplined," Matsumoto said. "You have to just do things to keep up. In my down time, I sleep."

He dreads those practices in the cold predawn hours, but leave it to Anne Marie May to spread some cheer. "I'm having a ball," said UCSB's swimming Cinderella.

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