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June 15th, 2008, 10:39 AM
2008 Summer Olympics:The road to Beijing Keeping hopes AFLOAT
Buoyed by thoughts of his brother,
Gil Stovall focuses on swimming for U.S. team

By Scott Cacciola (Contact)
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gil and Brooks Stovall grew up as swimming royalty in Memphis. Everyone knew the Stovall brothers, and their names still pepper national record books. Separated by just 18 months, they competed against each other in the same age group for six months every two years, periods of their lives both remember well.

Meet officials would have to separate the two, that thin line between love and hate fraying for all to see. Each wanted to win so badly, and they always wound up in adjacent lanes as the top seeds. If Gil won, Brooks would storm away and rage to the world. If Brooks won, Gil would quietly seethe. Either way, there was drama.


Former Ridgeway swimmer Gil Stovall says he owes a lot to his brother, Brooks, who served six months in Iraq after leaving Auburn. "Where he was and what he was doing motivated me to work a lot harder for everything I wanted," Gil said.

Nikki Boertman/The Commerical Appeal

Brooks Stovall put a promising swimming career behind him to join the Army, but brother Gil uses him as motivation on a daily basis.

But what Gil remembers best are those occasions when he could sit by the pool and watch his younger brother swim. There was something special about Brooks. His intensity was almost frightening, each stroke like lightning striking the surface.

"Nobody could race like him," Gil said. "It was beautiful to watch."

Both seemed assured of greatness, and Gil fulfilled his promise. As a senior at Georgia, he broke a 17-year-old NCAA record in the 200-yard butterfly at the Division 1 Men's Championships on March 29. At age 22, he now hopes to book passage to Beijing at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, to be held from June 29 to July 6 in Omaha, Neb.

Brooks, meantime, enrolled at Auburn last summer as one of the country's top recruits, then dropped out of school and off the map. Just like that. Internet message boards buzzed: What happened to Brooks? Such a simple question. Such a complicated answer.

"I lost focus," he said, "and threw everything away."

Confused and angry, Brooks enlisted in the U.S. Army. That he managed to recover much of what he lost over the past year -- a year that took him to Iraq and back -- mystifies even him. But in the process, he inspired his older brother and discovered something important about redemption, about family, about himself.

"I lost all my dreams when I couldn't swim anymore," he said. "And I'll never take it for granted again."

In hopes of making the U.S. Olympic team, Gil swims between 65,000 and 70,000 meters per week, which equates to more than 40 miles -- or 1,400 laps in an Olympic-size pool. It is among the most solitary of sports, the murky underwater hum his lone companion during all those laps, all that yardage, all those lonely hours.

"Swimming fast all the time, training hard all the time?" Gil said. "It's gotten me this far."

Something about his psychological makeup suits swimming's unique demands. For Gil, boredom is a foreign concept. His mother recalled how she would send him to a corner for a 5- or 10-minute "timeout" if he misbehaved as a child. Brooks would stomp and scream during his timeouts. But Gil? Twenty minutes would pass, 30 minutes, then 40 ...

"I would forget about him," Dana Stovall said, "and he'd still be sitting there, playing with his fingers like they were airplanes."

Even these days, family members watch him eat dinner and wonder: How many different ways can he play with that salt shaker? His napkin? His chair? His mother thinks it has something to do with being the middle child. He is quiet and introspective, blending into the scenery, whereas Brooks -- the youngest of three -- makes his presence known.

"Big personality, talks loud," Gil said. "Whenever he walks in the room, you never know what he's going to do."

These qualities manifest themselves in the pool. If Gil is fueled by his brooding determination, by his rigorous training and methodical approach -- "You won't find anyone in the world who has better technique," Brooks said -- then Brooks is all passion and bravado. Gil is ice, his brother fire. As kids, they took different approaches to similar results.

And this all makes sense: In so many ways, they are so very different. They barely even look like brothers. At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Brooks has the build of a construction worker. At 5-8 and 150 pounds, Gil looks more like a jockey, though his size never deterred him.

"I knew I was smaller than everybody else," he said. "But on the pool deck, I didn't think about it. Because of what I could do, I felt larger than life."

And this is where their lives truly connected, in the water. The 4:30 a.m. alarms for morning workouts; the afternoon practices; the 10 years they spent being home schooled with their older sister, Dottie (an accomplished swimmer in her own right); the countless records they broke and titles they claimed. They were best friends and fiercest rivals.

Gil left for Georgia in 2004 after winning three state titles at Ridgeway High, setting the state record in the 100 freestyle as a senior. Brooks was a finalist in three events at the 2004 Senior Nationals, competed with the 2005 National Junior team and was offered full scholarships to just about every swimming factory in the country. He visited Michigan, Arizona, Florida and Georgia before settling on Auburn.

But the emotion that stimulated him whenever he plunged into the pool could cause problems when he dried off. Unlike his brother, he kept nothing inside. Most of the time, he could channel that energy. But sometimes, he could not. And when his parents divorced last year, -- a situation that was messy for all involved -- he had trouble coping.

Shortly after arriving at Auburn last spring, his life unraveled like a ball of yarn. He clashed with the head coach. He was still consumed with family issues. Then he checked out. He snapped, teenage rebellion and family trauma forming a combustible mix.

"It was really up and down with him," Gil said. "We would think he was doing better, then something would happen and he'd screw up again."

Brooks reached depths that he and his family prefer not to revisit. Last May, he had left Auburn and was staying with a friend, Larry Thompson, at the University of Alabama. Brooks was considering his options -- he could transfer and start over -- when Thompson floated an idea past him: Why not enlist? Brooks paused. Something about the suggestion resonated, the vague concept of serving his country. Plus, if he wanted to escape his problems at home, Iraq was about as far away as he could get.

"I just got mad at the whole situation," he said. "I got mad at everything in my life and decided, 'Screw this, I'm joining the Army.'"

He walked into a military recruitment office in Tuscaloosa on May 11. Twelve days later, he was at basic training.

"Honestly, it was a relief," Dana Stovall said, "because as a parent, I'd really done everything I could for Brooks. I was just happy that someone else was going to be an authority figure in his life, because he needed authority, he needed stability, he needed direction."

By October, he was en route to the Middle East for a six-month tour with the 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment. And he had immediate regrets.

"The mistake was not leaving Auburn," he said. "I needed to leave Auburn. I did not like it there. But what I should have done is gone to another school and swam instead of joining the Army. It's a classic case of someone getting really confused and joining the Army. And I feel like a ton of people do that."

His first morning at COP Callahan, a combat outpost in Baghdad, he awoke in a daze: Where am I? How did I get here? Then he remembered: This is Iraq. The first two weeks were like that. He said he felt scared and anxious. He missed swimming, longed for home. And, of course, he worried about getting killed. More experienced soldiers counseled him, this 20-year-old boy, telling him the situation used to be far worse, the danger more immediate.

"They said nobody was getting blown up anymore," Brooks said. "Then, that first day, two guys from Charlie Company -- one lost his legs and another took shrapnel to the face. And I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, I want to get the hell out of here.'"

His grim daily reality included two eight-hour shifts patrolling a central road, three or four hours of sleep and the hollow feeling that he had lost swimming forever. The chills came at night. His only comfort, he said, was the idea that he was part of progress, that his platoon was changing this apocalyptic place for the better. He began to adjust to his new life.

"At the same time, you just never knew what was going to happen," he said. "And it sucked to just sit there, waiting to get shot at or blown up."

These were the same unsettling thoughts that ran through his brother's head in Georgia. Gil cringed whenever he heard news reports about roadside bombs. He knew Brooks often traveled a treacherous 20-kilometer stretch between Camp Taji and Baghdad, and he awaited his e-mails, his occasional phone calls. If Gil ever found himself laboring through a difficult workout, he thought of Brooks.

"I owe so much of my success this year to him," Gil said. "Where he was and what he was doing motivated me to work a lot harder for everything I wanted."

And the more Brooks learned of Gil's successes, the more the goal of swimming again grabbed hold of him. Brooks said he felt so proud of his brother -- all the obstacles he had overcome, all the injuries, all the hard work that had put him on the cusp of becoming an Olympian.

Thinking about him, his own plan began to take shape: Finish his tour, enroll at prep school, then swim at the U.S. Military Academy. He returned home in March.

"It's great to be home," Brooks said. "I love America. It's just, you know, there's no dirt anywhere. There are bathrooms. It's awesome."

He will enroll at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory Academy next month, with hopes of attending West Point next year. He said can hardly wait to start training again, though Gil harbors concerns.

"I just worry sometimes that it won't happen as quickly as he wants it to," Gil said. "I keep reminding him: 'Hey, when you get back in the water, it'll be a slow and painful process. Just stick with it.'"

Gil knows about being frustrated. He experienced his self-described "defining moment" at the 2003 Summer National Championships, where he sliced his personal best by 2 seconds in the 200-yard butterfly and broke the national junior record. Or thought he did, until he learned that Michael Phelps had smashed the record by four seconds the week before.

"So that was bittersweet," Gil said.

Phelps, a six-time Olympic gold medalist, has long cast an intimidating shadow over Gil's career. Gil plans to compete in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic Trials, with the top two finishers in each event qualifying. The problem? Phelps not only swims both events, he dominates them.

"Ever since I was a little kid, you dream about touching the wall first, setting world records," said Gil, ranked third in the country in the 200. "But with Michael Phelps in the picture, I think it's pretty much impossible for anyone else to hit the wall first. But I daydream, and those dreams are what make you work for it, what make you want it."

Brooks visited the pool at the University of Memphis last week. He swam so many laps there as a boy, but everything seemed different now. That new weight room? It used to be a locker room. He caught his reflection in a pane glass window: He looked so bulky, 15 pounds heavier than his swimming weight.

Then he stood by the pool where he and his brother swam lap after lap in adjacent lanes.

He never figured he would have to go halfway around the world to realize how much that meant.

-- Scott Cacciola: 529-2773

U.S. Olympic Swim Trials
When: June 29-July 6
Where: Omaha, Neb.

Other area qualifiers

Lindsey Brackens
Age: 18
High school: Briarcrest
Qualified in: 200, 400, 800 freestyle

Lauren Harrington
Age: 15
High school: St. Mary's
Qualified in: 100 backstroke, 100 butterfly

Brooke Watson
Age: 16
High school: White Station
Qualified in: 200 butterfly

Gil Stovall
Age: 22
Height, weight: 5-8, 150
College: Georgia
Accomplishments
As a senior in high school, set state records in the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly.
Placed ninth in 200 fly at 2004 Olympic Trials.
Placed eighth in 200 fly at 2005 World University Games.
Finished second in 200 fly at 2007 U.S. Nationals.
Won 2008 NCAA championship and broke 17-year-old NCAA record in 200-yard fly in March.
Part of second-place 800-meter freestyle relay at 2008 Santa Clara International; also placed third in 200 fly.
Ranked third nationally in the 200 fly.


http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2008/jun/15/2008-summer-olympicsthe-road-to-beijing-keeping/

funkyfish
June 15th, 2008, 06:24 PM
So often you read about top competitors being over 6' tall. It's cool to see a "short" swimmer do so well. I hope he does well.
:applaud: