The first time Woodward sophomore Bryan Nicosia competed in a national-level swimming competition -- the Junior Nationals at Gainesville, Fla. in April 1983 -- he was disqualified in the 200-yard breast stroke.
Off each wall a breast stroke competitor is allowed one large pull and kick underwater before breaking the surface and resuming his stroke. Nicosia took two pulls, something he had never done before and has never done since.
He laughs about it now, saying, "I don't know how it happened; I was really uptight. It was my first big meet. It affected me a lot. There were so many people there so close to my time and so far ahead of me.
"It was a totally different meet than anything I'd been to before, everybody's fast. There are no slow heats. It got me really nervous. It was the first time I'd taken a plane to a swim meet."
Since that ignominious start, Nicosia has taken numerous plane trips to national-level meets. His most recent venture was to Indianapolis, for the Olympic Trials. Nicosia, then 15, was the youngest male qualifier at the meet.
To qualify in each event, a competitor must meet stringent cutoff times. A very small percentage of the nation's swimmers qualify to make the trials. Nicosia finished 30th overall in the 200-meter breast stroke with time of 2:25.85.
Nicosia, an engaging young man who smiles easily, is 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, His broad, muscular shoulders and chest taper to slim hips that slice through the water.
While Nicosia's form hints at intensive weight training, as does his powerful stroke in the water, his high school coach, Kerry Ellett, said he doesn't think Nicosia has ever hoisted anything more than his towel. Instead, he said, what makes Nicosia capable of competing with the country's elite swimmers is an inner drive.
"He's got three really good things about him as a swimmer," said Ellett, who coached Nicosia as a 12-year-old age-grouper. "He's got good strokes, he's mentally tough and he works hard. By saying he's mentally tough, I mean he likes to win, to do well, to improve. He's motivated."
Yet, in talking with Nicosia, one gets the impression that most accomplishments come quite naturally to him. He doesn't have to concentrate too hard to make it happen. While he can quote all his significant times and performances by heart, going back to when he he led the nation's 11- and 12-year-old breast strokers, he approaches the intense sport as a game.
And this is a sport that takes a substantial toll on age-group swimmers. Most, by the time they reach the 15-18 age level, have had enough of two-a-day workouts and zero social life. Some, like Auburn's Rowdy Gaines, once the premier sprint freestyler in the nation, just up and quit after the 1980 U.S. Olympic boycott. It had all become too much to take.
With Nicosia, though, there is an underlying motivation that belies an outward nonchalance.
"What do I get out of swimming? Let's see, I stay in shape, but, no, that's not the real reason," he said one afternoon before practice. "It's the satisfaction of seeing my times improve. I like the swimming social crowd, my best friends are my swimming friends. And I enjoy the practices, not all of them, but the meets are fun."
Practices are fun? Nicosia is talking about getting up at 4:10 every day to make a two-hour morning workout at NIH with his club team, then going to school until 1:30 and leaving an hour earlier than his classmates to rest up for the two-hour evening club session at Georgetown Prep.
In a typical day, Nicosia will swim more than seven miles.
Over the Christmas holidays, Nicosia's club, Curl Swim Club, went south to train at the University of Florida facilities. There, Nicosia and his teammates put in 9,000 meters long course (in a 50-meter pool) in the morning and almost that much in the evening.
"I think Rick (Coach Rick Curl) was trying to kill us at practice so we wouldn't go out at night," Nicosia joked.
All that time in the water leaves little time for anything else. But since he was nine years old, when he began swimming year-round with Curl, Nicosia's been doing little else then paddling back and forth in a pool, be it 25 yards long in the winter or 50 meters in the summer.
"I really don't miss having a 'normal' life," he said. "I'm used to the routine of swimming by now. I don't really know what I'm missing. But I still go out at night sometimes.
"This year I'd like to make an international meet," he said. "You have to place in the top eight in the winter nationals and you have a good chance at making the travelling teams. That's something I've never done before. I definitely want to swim in college, considering I stay at the same level and get better."