Corvallis, Oregon isn't exactly known as a factory for elite swimmers. So how did Cal freshman Jacob Pebley wind up on the USA Junior National Team?
"My family used to raft a lot, and they didn't want me to drown," Pebley said.
In the safety of a calm, contained swimming pool, Pebley has flourished. Despite training in relative obscurity in the Pacific Northwest, Pebley became one of the top backstrokers in the country. He had top programs like Texas, Florida and Georgia vying for his talents, but ultimately chose to join the two-time NCAA champions in Berkeley.
"I was always training by myself," Pebley said. "Coming here was completely different. Every practice is hard."
While Pebley swam for a club in Corvallis, there was nobody else there at his level. He was the only one to qualify for the Olympic Trials. He said there has been one other male swimmer from his club to earn a Division I scholarship.
"It's pretty cool to come from a town that doesn't have many D-I swimmers," Pebley said. "I'm used to being the big fish in a small pond, and I want to have that feeling again. But I have to work for it."
There's no question Pebley is surrounded by high-level swimmers at Cal, but the freshman is already carving out his own legacy in Berkeley. He owns the top time in the country this year in the 200 backstroke with a mark of 1:41.62.
"You don't see too many swimmers coming out of Oregon, in general," Cal coach Dave Durden said. "But his club program coach did a great job. For Jacob to come to an environment where he is surrounded by some Olympians, guys that are comparable in the world to where he is at, there is a comfort level to that. You can see him get better and better."
While being around fellow accomplished swimmers can be comforting, it is also a change from what he was used to back home. The internal competition is raising the level of his performance, as his performance in the 200 backstroke indicates.
"I like being at the top," Pebley said. "This is what I want. I feel like it's my event."
While Pebley clearly already is one of the top backstrokers in the country, next year he will have to compete just to retain that title on his own team. In 2013-14, Cal will see the arrival of six-star recruit Ryan Murphy, who has a best 200 back time of 1:40.90.
Pebley has raced internationally with Murphy and the two are friends.
"I couldn't be happier," Pebley said. "My goal is to make the Olympics, and racing a guy who has the same goal and is on the same level as me is going to push both of us every day. He's going to be great for the team."
Speaking of the team, the Bears are coming up on judgment time in college swimming. Cal hosts rival Stanford on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Spieker Aquatics Complex, then it's off to the Pac-12 Championships next week in Federal Way, Wash. The Bears will look for their third straight NCAA championship at the end of March in Indianapolis.
"It's always a different group, so even though we have a lot of guys that return with NCAA experience, it doesn't necessarily mean that much," Durden said. "There are some great experienced guys that know how to handle that meet. But it's more how that information is relayed to our younger guys. I think we have some good swimmers that have some good swims in them. But we really need to be clicking and firing as a team come the end of March, rather than just rely on a couple of individuals to take us there."