Larry Calabro hauled himself out of the George Washington University pool, toweled off, shook hands, entered the pool office and planted himself in a chair. He clearly was worried.
"I'm a little apprehensive about this interview . . . you know, because of the heart condition," he said. "I don't want this to sound like I'm some kind of freak show."
With his blue-collar, no-complaints upbringing, Calabro treats a heart condition as nothing more than an inconvenience. And it has been that, ending the competitive swimming career of an athlete who came to GW on a swimming scholarship, but not ending his athletic involvement.
Calabro's ailment is called supra ventricular tachycardia, according to Dr. Patrick Gorman, director of cardiac rehabilitation at George Washington Medical Center, who compared it to "a runaway engine where the tachometer needle goes way into the red area." But he added that the condition was not life-threatening in Calabro's case, though it could be in patients who have other physical problems.
The condition made it impractical to do interval training, which is a major part of a competitive swimmer's workout. But quitting was not a term learned in the Calabro household, so Calabro still practices with the Colonials swim team and occasionally helps out at meets by diving, even though he has little or no experience. More importantly to him, he has found a new outlet for his energy and interest -- water polo.
"I first noticed it in late September of 1983, my freshman year, when we started really working hard," Calabro said of the first signs of pain. "My heart would start beating very, very rapidly. I'd have pain shooting down my arm and up my neck. The first few times it happened, I didn't say anything. But it was obvious I wasn't performing the way I should be or what I was recruited at, so in late October or November I got medical attention."
But it took awhile to peg the problem.
"I went through stress tests and the whole bit, but nothing really showed up," Calabro said. "They couldn't simulate the stress created in the water during high-interval training."
So Calabro went back to the high-interval training with instructions. If pain reappeared, he was to immediately get out of the water and go to the heart therapy unit in Smith Center and get hooked up to one of the cardiograph machines.
Then a series of tests confirmed it, after which, "I didn't swim the rest of my freshman year," Calabro said. "But then during the summer, while on digoxin medication , I trained and had no occurrences and started to get my body back in shape to where it was."
But it didn't last.
"When I came back for my sophomore year, in September and October, I was swimming better than I ever had in college," said Calabro, whose specialty was the breaststroke and individual medley. "Things were going pretty well, but in November, I had my first attack in close to six to eight months."
Calabro said doctors tried a variety of drugs after that, but without success. George Washington Coach Carl Cox said that by December, when the team went to Florida for winter training, it was evident the medication wasn't doing the trick.
"It scared me half to death," Cox said. "His heart rate went up to 216-220. It scared us to death. You could see his chest pounding."
Gorman said a heart rate of 180-200 would be normal for that type of activity, "but when it jumps to 220-230, it's definitely abnormal and inefficient."
At that point, "It doesn't take a whole lot of intelligence to know we'd gotten to the end of the road," Calabro said. "Dr. Gorman was great in that he didn't give up. He really cared and it probably bothered him as much as it bothered me in saying, 'This is it.' "
When the day came for Calabro to face the fact that his competitive days were over, it was understandably difficult.
"I was in a daze," Calabro said. "My parents gave me the most support and they said it wasn't the end of the world and they reassured me that it wasn't the only thing in my life. I have a 3.4 grade point and I've done pretty well in whatever I put my mind to. They tried to put my mind off on other things, but that wasn't me. As far as I was concerned, I was an athlete."
But enough of a scholar, too, that the school converted his athletic scholarship to an academic one. So while he remained at George Washington, Calabro said his background helped him cope.
"I'm from a little place called Archbald, outside Scranton, Pa., and just coming to the city Washington was a treat in itself," Calabro said. "My dad's a mechanic and my mom is an electrical technician . . .
"My background, coming out of a place like that, where you worked for everything you got and never got anything handed to you . . . that really helped me a lot in saying to myself, 'This is not the end of the world, I can fight this. It isn't the first thing you had to fight for.' "
Water polo became an athletic alternative and Calabro took to it like a fish to water. This past season, he was the second-leading scorer on Coach Rob Nielson's team and made the all-conference team. It was a place to channel his energy and competitiveness, and it removed the feeling of being on the outside of his athletic world looking in.
"I think it was reassuring," Calabro said. "It gave me more confidence in myself that I was still good at something."
He also continues to dive. Although he is light years from being Greg Louganis it doesn't really matter. He only occasionally dives during meets, but against Delaware this season George Washington had only one diver, so Calabro thought he'd give it a shot.
"I just went up and winged it," he said.
Cox said: "When he got on the board, there was such spirit, you wouldn't believe. The rest of the team was going, 'Lar-ry, Lar-ry, Lar-ry' . . . the officials had to ask for quiet. And he dove both boards. The guy Delaware put in couldn't dive both boards. The guy didn't have the experience to do that, but Larry did. No, actually, he didn't have the experience, but he did have the guts."
Not to mention heart.