BEIJING (Reuters) - When 50-metre freestyle swimmer Daniel Coakley steps on to the starting blocks at the Beijing Olympics in August, his thoughts will be a continent away, on surfing the curl of a huge wave off the Hawaiian coast.
“My coach said that to stay relaxed I should focus on the happiest times in my life and that was growing up in Kohala on the Big Island, surfing the best wave I’ve ever caught,” the 18-year-old swimmer said in a recent telephone interview.
“Or I might be on the beach in Pololu Valley, standing there with a cool ocean breeze blowing in my face. I’ll think of the Kohala coast because it’ll keep my mind clear.”
The Hawaii native and dual U.S.-Philippine citizen, who will be swimming for the Philippine national team, spent his early years of training in a sun-heated pool on a volcanic slope overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, where he was coached by his father, Jeff.
Facilities in his small town of about 1,200 people fell short of Olympic standards.
“Who would have ever thought he could reach the Olympics by training in this pool, with no equipment and just his dad as a coach?” said Jeff in a recent interview at the pool, where he works as a lifeguard and coach.
“For nine years, we had to improvise and make our own training equipment. He’s never done any weight training. He just swam.”
“I remember so many times when it was a struggle just to get him to the pool to practice. Then, once he was in the pool, he’d duck underwater every time I tried to tell him what to swim. I’d be lucky to get 1,500 yards out of him in a practice.”
Now, Daniel, who gets his Philippine credentials through his mother’s side, has moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to train with other Olympic contenders and top American swimmers in the final months before the Games.
Training has become more intense and underwater cameras focus on Daniel as he uses specially designed fins and hand paddles that help the swimmers to fine-tune every aspect of their strokes.
Even the most automatic function — breathing — has come under scrutiny.
In a sprint such as the 50 meters freestyle, the difference between gold and last place can be fractions of a second, so there is no room for error and no time to even breathe after he enters the water.
“I used to take three breaths in the race and each breath cost me a half-second,” Coakley said. “Now I’m training to do the whole 50 meters without a breath.”
Taking a post-race soak in a jacuzzi recently, Coakley was joined by some of the top swimmers in the world, including Americans Michael Phelps, Ian Crocker and Brendon Hansen who have 15 Olympic medals between them.
Jeff said his son was so excited that he later called home to relay the story.
“I asked him how they looked,” Jeff Coakley recalled. “He said: ‘Dad, you know Gladiator Magazine? That’s how they look.’ My son, who is six foot, looks like a little boy next to them.”
He will go to Beijing as an underdog but Daniel thinks he could pull off a surprise by drawing on the aura of his Hawaiian name, Kailikoa, which means “skin of a warrior” but also can be translated as a “snatching warrior,” or one who steals a prize.
“That’s what I did at the Southeast Asian Games in Thailand to qualify for the Olympics — I stole the prize. I was seeded fifth or sixth in the preliminary heat but in the finals I took the gold and set a new record” — 22.80 seconds.
Still, 71 other swimmers in the world swam the event faster than him last year, according to International Swimming Federation (FINA) rankings.
“Even though people say I don’t have a chance, I keep positive,” Coakley said. “Hey, it’s anybody’s game. You never know who’ll win gold.”
Editing by Clare Fallon