Chad La Tourette owns just about every piece of hardware a 23-year-old swimmer could want: an NCAA title, a national title and six World University Games medals. Like most elite swimmers, the Stanford standout aspires to stand on the podium at the Olympics with “The Star-Spangled Banner” blaring and a medal draped around his neck.
But first, he’ll need to land a spot on Team USA at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., starting Monday.
“I definitely want to make the Olympics — that’s something every little kid dreams about,” La Tourette said.
La Tourette played several sports growing up in Orange County, but he started taking swimming more seriously after he broke his right leg playing soccer at age 12.
“I don’t think I really wanted to put in the time to rehabilitate it for the kind of stress that would be put on it by soccer, so swimming was the easiest sport to get back into,” La Tourette said.
But he was hardly a natural in the pool. He didn’t possess the gifts — large hands, superior height and a freakish wingspan — that define most Olympic-caliber swimmers, so he focused on long-distance races where he could outwork and out-will his competition.
“He doesn’t like to hear this, but he really wasn’t a very good age-group swimmer,” said coach Bill Rose, who heads the Mission Viejo Nadadores swim club, where La Tourette has trained since he was 6 years old. “I first noticed him because he was kind of like a dough boy — he was a little bit overweight, a little bit soft.”
But Rose liked having him around because he worked hard and lit up the room with his dry sense of humor. When La Tourette was 14, Rose added him to his high school-aged team as a project and within a year he dropped 2½ minutes off his best time.
“He just took off,” Rose said.
At 16, he qualified for nationals and was named rookie of the meet; two years later, he captured two gold medals at the 2007 World University Games. After graduating from high school, La Tourette a took a year off to train for the 2008 Olympic trials and he narrowly missed a trip to Beijing, finishing third in 1,500-meter freestyle (the top two qualify).
“I was a deer in the headlights,” La Tourette said. “I don’t think I completely choked at that meet or anything, but nerves definitely affected me.”
La Tourette started classes at Stanford that fall and went on to win an NCAA title in the 1,650 freestyle during his sophomore year. Despite finishing as the national runner-up the next two seasons, La Tourette set a new U.S. record in that race during his final collegiate swim at NCAA championships last March. In the summer of 2009, he grabbed another gold and three silvers at the World University Games before winning a national championship in the 1,500 free in 2010.
Next week, he’ll get another chance to qualify for the Olympics in the 1,500 and the 400 freestyle races.
“I’m going into this race just like I go into any other race,” La Tourette said. “I can really only control myself, so that’s what I’ll focus on in the end.”