Gaucho now getting his opponents to flip out

March 4, 2011

Chris Peterson was determined to make a good first impression at UCSB's Campus Pool, having never even swam in high school.

He fell flat on his face. Literally.

The former gymnast, coaxed by his new teammates into attempting a back flip on the pool deck three years ago, stuck the landing - on his forehead.

"I think it was my first week, and honestly, I wasn't used to training as hard as Gregg (Wilson, UCSB's coach) was working us," Peterson recalled. "I didn't realize how sore my legs were.

"I'd done hundreds of back flips and had never landed on my head before, but I didn't get the height I needed."

He needed 13 stitches to close the wound in his eye brow, but now only performs his flips against a pool wall. He's one of the Gauchos' best hopes this week as they compete in their first-ever Pac-10 Swimming Championships at Long Beach's Belmont Plaza Pool.

"I asked him, 'Were you trying to impress people?' " Wilson recalled. "He said, 'Well, yeah.' I said, 'You didn't.' "

But it didn't take Peterson long to wow his new coach with his raw athletic ability. Wilson hadn't included him among his top 18 swimmers for scoring purposes since he was so new to competition, but he soon came to regret it.

"We included him in an exhibition 4x50 free relay to see how fast he could go," he recalled. "And oh my gosh, he went 19.7 the first time he shaved, which was a very good time for us.

"I blew it, because it was too late to change him from exhibition swimmer to scoring swimmer."

Olympic gold medalist Jason Lezak holds UCSB's school record of 19.67 in the (non-relay) 50 free. Peterson is gunning for that mark today in Long Beach, having already cracked the 20-second barrier last year.

He even finished ahead of Lezak in a relay race during last fall's alumni meet.

"We were both the anchor legs, and our team was a little ahead when I took off," Peterson said. "But nevertheless, I got to versus Jazon Lezak.

"Afterward, he asked Gregg, 'Who was that guy?' "

That's what Wilson was asking four years earlier while attending a workout of the Orinda Aquatics Club.

"We went there to recruit another kid, and one of the coaches told me, 'The kid you really want is over there,'" he recalled. "I looked over, and there was this really ripped guy - just a real man-child."

Peterson, 17 at the time, had already been taking courses at Contra Costa Junior College as a home-schooled high school student. He is now a Dean's List scholar at UCSB, having won the Christopher Divis Scholarship from the College of Engineering.

"He had been a gymnast and was really into theater - a real Renaissance man," Wilson said. "He has the classical approach to a sound mind and sound body."

Peterson's father, Edward, is an engineer with a swimming pedigree. But it was his mother, JoAnne, a professional dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, who inadvertantly led him into the pool.

"I went into dance class, did tap and jazz and some ballet here and there, and got into the musical-theater side of things," Peterson said. "I wanted to spice it up, so to speak, and so I took up gymnastics and specialized in the floor routine."

He dislocated his knee, however, while attempting a layout double-twist.

"I started swimming to stay in shape," he said. "I dislocated it again doing the same move a year later, on the anniversary of the first injury, and decided that it was time to move on to a new sport."

Peterson took up diving and, eventually, recreational swimming with the Pinole Seals before moving on to Orinda Aquatics.

He actually considers his late start to have been an advantage.

"I absolutely love swmming, and I know so many people who'd been doing it since age 10 who burned out on it," Peterson said. "I think the secret for me was coming in late, giving all I have every day at practice because I really enjoy what I'm doing.

"And being new, I had my ears open and listened to everything that was being said, whether it was coming from a fellow swimmer or the coaches."

By his sophomore season, he was clocking 19.98 in the 50 free to win the Big West Conference championship. He also led UCSB to a pair of relay titles, setting a record in the 4x50 free.

The Gauchos have upgraded this year to the Pac-10, with Peterson swimming the 50 free today, the 100 back stroke on Friday and the 100 free on Saturday. He's also part of three UCSB relay teams.

The Pac-10, which includes many of America's top swimmers, has seeded him ninth in the 50 free.

"He'll be going against one of the best in the world, Nathan Adrian, who is a senior at Cal," Wilson pointed out. "He's as big as a house and, at this point in time, is probably the fastest sprint free-styler that the U.S. has.

"But Chris is really excited about facing him. He sees himself succeeding at the highest level, and there's nothing he considers better for himself than the Pac-10."

Peterson can now even see the silver lining of his head-bashing back-flip.

"I couldn't put my head in the water for two weeks because of the stitches, so I had to use a kick board," he said. "But what that did was really improve my leg strength."

He saw stars, and then he became one.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com

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