Jan. 10, 2012
BERKELEY - Accidental Champion
Tom Shields Changes Course and Wins NCAA Titles in 100 Fly and 100 Back
By Herb Benenson (This feature ran in the Winter 2011-12 issue of Cal Sports Quarterly)
When Tom Shields arrived on the Cal campus in the fall of 2009, he did so as the reigning high school swimmer of the year and owner of the national high school record in the 200 freestyle.
So naturally, he progressed to be a national champion in his specialty, right?
Two full seasons into his collegiate career, Shields possesses a pair of individual NCAA titles, but neither in the 200 free. Instead, he captured the NCAA crown in the 100 butterfly as a freshman and came back a year later to claim the national 100 backstroke championship.
The fact that he won his first trophy in the 100 fly came as a surprise, while the 100 back was even more unexpected. The reason: in both cases, neither event was part of his repertoire until just before the championship meets got underway.
Early in Shields' freshman campaign, head coach David Durden began working with his young swimmer to find a three-event profile which would allow him to compete in one individual race on each of the three days of the NCAA Championships.
The 200 free on day two was a given and the 200 fly on the final day seemed a natural fit. The question was what to do on opening night.
"We played around with the 500 freestyle in the fall of his freshman year," Durden said. "He just never took to it. We spent all the way into January trying to have him feel comfortable with that."
Realizing that the 500 free was not a viable option, Durden and Shields at last decided that he would try the 100 fly and 200 free on the same day - events that are contested back-to-back, making it a near-impossible double.
Shields defied logic at the Pac-10 meet, winning the 100 fly and after a break, returning to the pool to finish third in the 200 free. But at the NCAA Championships, Shields just missed qualifying for the 200 free final, which meant he had to swim the 100 fly, warm down for two minutes and immediately line up on the blocks for the consolation race. With so little time to recover, Shields was a distant last in the 200.
Still, Shields did win the 100 fly - a "successful mistake" Durden called it - but it was back to the drawing board to find a new routine for 2011.
Shields' initially tried out the 200 individual medley. But like the 500 free, the event didn't last.
"We just kept forcing it and forcing it," Durden said. "Finally in February, we decided we had to go with the 100 backstroke."
Just as with the late switch to the 100 fly, the 100 back was a perfect fit for Shields. He won the event at the Pac-10 meet the first week of March 2011 and collected the national title at the NCAA Championships at the end of the month.
Now as a junior for the Golden Bears in 2011-12, Shields has a much better sense of what to expect in the water and plans to work to refine what have become his new fortes - the 100 and 200 fly and the 100 back. His ability to swim underwater has been a strength all along - "tremendous" is the term Durden uses - and Shields uses the tactic to his advantage in all three of his events.
The trick this time is to better develop what happens above the surface. Already the school record-holder in the 200 free, the 100 back, and the 100 and 200 fly, Shields should only improve as he concentrates on his better strokes without the distraction of experimenting in other events.
"Now that we know what his three events are, it's kind of scary as a coach because we can't make a happy mistake and he's going to win an event for us," Durden said.
From an early age, Shields knew that water would become a big part of his life - his grandfather was an Olympic Trials-caliber swimmer and his father played water polo at the Air Force Academy - but not necessarily in the pool. Growing up in Huntington Beach, Calif., Shields wanted to become water safe in order to be a junior life guard and surf, but he soon "noticed how competitive I was in swimming, especially the racing aspect."
By the time he was 14, Shields won a CIF title as a high school freshman and realized that swimming needed his full concentration. Although he just missed the national age-group record, he made a promise to himself that would take another three years to realize.
"Before I graduated high school," Shields said, "I wanted at least one national record. By the time I got to my senior year, I hadn't set any. So the national high school record in the 200 free became by goal, and I honed in on that."
Shields set the mark - 1:33.83 - in the prelims of the CIF meet his senior season, but he knows he swam far from a perfect race, particularly in his turns.
"And my coach got on me about that," Shields said. "That's what I needed and that's what makes a coach good. The coaches here do the same thing. They recognize a good swim, but they always know where you can get better."
As much as each swim deserves individual attention, the team aspect at the college level especially appeals to Shields, a fact that isn't lost on Durden.
"He's very mindful of that," Durden said. "In fact, his best swims are on relays when the team absolutely needs him to perform well. He really gets geared up for that."
When the Golden Bears captured the national team championship last year - their first in more than 30 seasons - emotions ran deep, not only for long-time followers of the program, but for current members of the squad.
"The team title has been a dream," Shields said. "I'm not going to cry about anything else, and I cried about that. The team title is really special to me. It's cool to do it with the group of guys we did it with, to have such an impact and just be there. I just want to do whatever the team needs me to do."
Backstroke, butterfly or freestyle. For Tom Shields, it really doesn't matter.