Jan. 8, 2010
By Scott Ball
For senior Sean Mahoney, his successes at the University of California have all been part of a journey that has taken the talented swimmer from a small cattle ranch in northern California to near the top of the world stage.
This December, Mahoney will represent the United States as a member of the prestigious Dual in the Pool team that will be competing against the top swimmers from Great Britain, Germany and Italy in Manchester, England.
The muscular 6-0, 200-pound breaststroker will be part of the U.S. contingent comprised of the nation's fastest swimmers, including fellow Golden Bear Nathan Adrian and Olympic hero Michael Phelps, who were selected based on their results from this past summer's USA National Championships, World University Games and the World Championships.
The fact that Mahoney hails from outside the small town of Rio Vista, Calif., population 7,000, makes any venture to a large city an extreme change of scenery for the Cal star, who currently owns the second-fastest time in the United States in the 200-meter breaststroke with a World University Games' mark of 2:09.70 set in Belgrade, Serbia, last summer. This was after placing second in the 200-yard breast (1:52.34) this past March at the 2009 NCAA championships in College Station, Texas.
So how did someone coming from a rural environment, not usually associated with world-class swimming, end up at Cal as one of the world's top breaststrokers? It came in a round-about way, from Rio Vista, to West Virginia University, and finally to Berkeley.
"I think the reason Sean has become the world-class swimmer that he is, is because he has matured," explained Cal head coach David Durden, who will be part of the USA coaching staff in England. "Not only has he become a better swimmer, but a better person, a better teammate and a better student. I think all these positive attributes have carried over to the pool.
"His club coach, Ray Mitchell, taught Sean how to work. He has that ranch-type, hard-work attitude. You could tell him to run through a brick wall and he would do it. Sean takes a lot of confidence from that hard work, and that is what makes him unique and makes him successful."
Growing up in Rio Vista with parents, Dan and Christine, and older siblings, Ryan and Kelly, Mahoney swam for Mitchell's renowned and notoriously tough Terrapins Swim Team, where he set a pair of national age-group records in the 200 breaststroke. Mahoney went on to become a high school All-American at De La Salle High School in Concord before transferring to Rio Vista High School, where his father was the football coach, for his senior year.
Then Mahoney's swimming odyssey really began.
"I first signed a letter of intent with Arizona State, but I quickly realized I had made a wrong decision," said Mahoney. "I had picked ASU for the wrong reasons. I was a little bit burnt out with the sport."
Fortunately for Mahoney, he had options. During his recruiting process, Mahoney had met Sergio Lopez, then the head coach at West Virginia, and immediately formed a bond.
"The one really honest person through my whole recruiting process was Sergio Lopez," said Mahoney. "Sergio had been supportive of me all along, even after I had signed with another school. It wasn't so much about recruiting me as an athlete, but about me as a person. So I decided to go to West Virginia and rescinded my letter of intent to ASU."
Mahoney's time in Morgantown was extremely successful, as he helped the Mountaineers win the 2007 Big East title his freshman year while setting the school record in the 200-yard breast with a time of 1:57.75. But sadly for West Virginia swimming, Lopez decided to leave the program late in the summer of '07 to become the head coach of The Bolles School, a prestigious prep school in Jacksonville, Fla. Suddenly, Mahoney again had to weigh his options, because without one of his favorite coaches, his desire to stay in Morgantown faded.
Again, the aquatic world smiled favorably on Mahoney.
"The new coach at West Virginia was really understanding about my situation and released me from my scholarship right away," said Mahoney. "I had decided I wanted to be closer to home, but at that time Nort Thornton had retired and Cal was without a coach. Still, I knew I wanted to come back home, and Cal was a great swimming school with great academics. It couldn't have worked out any better. Coach Durden is one of the most caring coaches I have ever met, and that is saying a lot because I have been close with all of my coaches."
That bond with coaches and teammates continues in Berkeley, helping Mahoney thrive with the Bears. After placing third at the NCAA championships in the 200 breast as a sophomore, he bettered that performance last season with a national runner-up finish. In fact, Mahoney had set an NCAA record in the 200 breast (1:51.96) in the morning prelims, before being edged out by Georgia's Neil Versfeld (1:51.40) in the final.
Now as one of only five seniors on the 2009-10 Cal squad, Mahoney is appreciative of his opportunity to compete for the Bears and is primed for an even greater future, both in and out of the pool.
"Cal has absolutely made me a better swimmer and student," said Mahoney, who is majoring in American studies. "We have the best weight program in the country with Nick Folker, who is just an amazing strength coach. Coach Durden is the best at tapering a swimmer (to get them ready for a championship meet) I have ever seen. If you watch us at the NCAAs, you see everyone across the board having these phenomenal swims. It is never just one or two people. It is everyone, as a group, doing awesome.
"There is a great balance among our coaching staff. Assistant Greg Meehan provides us with an aerobic background that personally helps me because I need that for the 200 breaststroke. Nort (now Cal's head coach emeritus) is the technical coach and the imagination of our team. He is always coming up with new ideas on how to improve, refining your technique, and exploring new ideas on how to become better than anyone else."
And whether in Rio Vista, Morgantown, Berkeley or Manchester, becoming better than anyone else in the pool has always been part of Sean Mahoney's travel plans.