Tualatin's Tom Cole trains hard and earns a spot swimming at the Junior National Championships
by: JAIME VALDEZ, AT HOME IN THE POOL — Tualatin High School senior-to-be Tom Cole, who won a state championship as a junior, spent his summer training in Guardalajara, Mexico, and compting at the Junior National Championships.

While many of his peers were enjoying a summer break, Tom Cole was hard at work. But his was no run-of-the-mill summer job.

Cole was in training.

Brutal swimming training.

Cole spent two weeks in the hills outside Guadalajara, Mexico, for some altitude training at just over 6,000 feet above sea level. The object was to increase his red blood cell count, which would lead to better endurance in preparation for the Junior National Swimming Championships.

Cole, an incoming senior at Tualatin High School, was part of a 15-member crew from the Tualatin Hills Thunderbolt Swim Club that spent two weeks in Guadalajara working with renowned swim coach Paul Bergen, father of Thunderbolt coach Linck Bergen.

'It was tough training,' Cole said. 'It's hard to breathe at that altitude. But it helped.'

Needless to say, the altitude change was quite an adjustment.

'The first week was rough,' Cole said. 'I felt so tired and drained.

'There was a hill we had climb to the pool. Just walking up the hill to practice would make you tired. It took a week and a half to feel normal again.'

Cole hardly felt normal heading into the training. He had been dealing with a case of tonsillectomy for the past year and had a flare-up shortly after winning the Class 4A state 100-yard breaststroke title in February, then again in April. He had his tonsils and anodes removed in late June, a few weeks before leaving for Guadalajara. He lost weight, lost stamina, and lost his edge.

'The worst thing that happened is I missed about 2½ months of consistent training,' Cole said. 'My times were outrageously slow. It put me really low, not only physically, but mentally as well. I pretty much started from zero.'

And then he went to 6,000 (feet). He considered taking the summer off, but ended up deciding on a three-week break before heading to Mexico.

There was a payoff, though. In early June, Cole, 17, met the time standard for the USA Junior National Swimming Championships in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. Upon completion of the altitude training, Cole and his teammates head straight for Irvine, Calif., to compete in his biggest meet to date - and enjoy some of life's simple pleasures.

'I could breathe again,' Cole said. 'It was nice. My resting heart rate was a lot slower.'

In turn, his times in the pool were faster. Cole knocked 2 ½ seconds off his best time in the 200 breaststroke during his first race at the meet, which featured 1,300 athletes.

Cole swam the race in 2 minutes, 29.65 seconds on Aug. 8, for the 57th best time out of more than 80 competitors.

'It was close to what I wanted to go,' Cole said. 'I can live with it because it was still a drop in time.'

The 100 breaststroke was a little different story. Cole improved his placing, taking 53rd out of nearly 100 swimmers, but fell short of his desired time with his mark of 1:08.38.

But there was some redemption. Cole, Jesuit's Connor McCarroll and Quincy Lee and Westview's Morgon Henderson-Kunz combined to place 14th out of 50 teams in the 400-medley relay.

In that race, Cole swam a 1:07-mid split in his 100-meter leg of the breaststroke.

'That's more in lines of what I was going for,' Cole said.

And more in line with what college scouts were looking for, as well.

'They'd come up and introduce themselves and say they're going to be watching your race,' Cole said. 'That was pretty nerve racking. But it was a good experience. I had a lot of colleges talk to me.'

And the right ones at that. Cole, who carries a 3.5 GPA, had a short list of colleges he was interested in that included Ohio State, Yale, Georgia, Arizona State and Cal-Berkeley. He has a planned visit with front-runner Ohio State, which he said 'has one of the best programs in the country.'

That Cole is even in that position is a testament to his hard work. After failing to even individually qualify for the state meet as a sophomore, Cole burst onto the scene by setting the Pac-9 Conference district meet record in the 100 breaststroke with a 58.73.

'I wasn't expecting that by any means,' Cole said.

He also won the 200 individual medley in 2:03.14 and swam on Tualatin's title-winning 200 medley relay team. For an encore, Cole won the 100 breaststroke state title in 58.81 to wrap up a high school season in which he shaved 5 seconds off his personal best.

'That's almost unheard of,' Cole said. 'I worked with some extremely good coaches and put in a lot of hard work and it paid off. Going into the season, I was just hoping to break the 1-minute mark.'

Now his expectations have heightened.

'I'm hoping to go faster, maybe even a state record,' said Cole, referring to the time of 56.79 Barlow's Jake Salaz swam in 2004. 'I'm pretty confident I can get to that.'

To do so, Cole will continue to push himself in the sport's most technical stroke. He's not exactly sure what led him to swim the breaststroke, which he said 'hurts really bad.'

'It has the most resistance in the water,' Cole said. 'You're fighting this wave and your arms and forearms are burning. And your legs are doing a more upward kick, so the whole body is just dying.

'You don't breathe that much, so your lungs are freaking out for air and you can't come up too soon.'

But there's something about it that Cole can't get enough of. Despite often waking up at 4 a.m. for a workout, followed by another after school, he is fully immersed in the sport.

'I love swimming,' he said. 'I can't imagine doing anything else. But sometimes you hate it. I'd rather stay in bed. I just have to push myself. I love competing.'

He's seen the hard work pay off with a district record, state title and trip to the junior nationals. And the knowledge that his accomplishments set him apart.

'Once you're done with the sets and practices, it's nice to know you've done something that 99 percent of the population can't do,' Cole said. 'But you have to do the work. If you don't put in the time, you won't see the results.'

Or the opportunity for a breath-taking (literally) trip to Mexico.