Tom Shields, now officially into his professional, post-graduate career, is touring as a part of the ‘regulars’ on the World Cup circuit. Thus far, he’s earned $9,000, but he says that in his two years worth of World Cup swimming, he’s earned more than just money.
Shields currently is 5th in the second cluster of meets, and if he can hold that position, it will result in a $10,000 bonus check.
As the run to the Rio 2016 Olympics really begins to ramp up in the spring of 2014, Shields says he isn’t really thinking about the Olympics. That’s not to say, though, that someone else isn’t.
“I fully believe (coach Dave) Durden has a plan until Tokyo (the 2020 Olympics) if I make it that far,” Shields told us as he prepared to travel to the 5th World Cup meet in Dubai. “My plans right now are: 1) Learn 2) Race 3) Try to relax. I have gotten too wrapped up in my plans before, that is not my job, my job is to swim. Dave Durden’s job is to plan. I let him know what my falls looks like, and springs and summers will be his to shape me into what I want to become.”
Even as Tom has put all of his trust in coach Durden, he says that the most valuable thing, perhaps, that he got from his World Cup experience in the fall of his senior year at Cal was learning how to fend for himself, without his coach.
“The exact intent was completely lost on me at the time, Coach Durden just called me the day before the deadline to cancel registration for classes and told me it would be a good idea to do so.
“Looking back on it now I think Durden knows that I do better with experience. He would not let me shave last year, I was not really in the best of shape, but I picked up a lot of knowledge and wisdom about a couple things. I essentially learned how to act like an adult in a foreign country; the basics of traveling alone, working with the federations, hotels, and all the stuff I had been so used to having a coach handle. Also I had to learn how to get better without the guarantee of anything besides splits from Omega. Without video, eyes on me, someone controlling my schedule, it was imperative that I learned to pay attention to things I usually never even thought of.”
“Durden, through his amazing ability to look deep into the future, knew I would be ill-prepared in my maturity to handle the World Cups but knew–as many did–that the World Cups was probably going to be where I ended up. Letting me go without having to worry about actually winning any money let me learn the system–the travel, the responsibility, etcetera–and the game–how to read entry lists, how to switch events, how to measure my own comfort in risk/reward, etc. He sent me last year so I could have a better shot at being successful this year. The advent of the clusters and the increase in prize money just landed in coincidence for me. I have not yet seen any “big money” as in cluster prizes, but last year set me up to even have a shot at this year.”
It’s hard to deny, though, with how good Shields has been at this year’s World Cup (he currently sits 6th in the overall standings, once the Dubai scoring is corrected), that he must be building confidence that will carry over to 2014. Shields, in the most recent stop of the meet, came within .02 seconds of the defending long course and short course World Champion in that event, Chad le Clos from South Africa.
“I’ve known Chad for a year now and appreciate every time we get to swim with each other, especially when I get close enough to call it a race,” Shields said with a laugh. “He has taught me so much just by being him.
“I thought I had put together a good race, but his last 5 meters are untouchable, making it very difficult to come from behind on him. I am confident in my ability to make Doha a race, not only for Chad, Konrad, and others in the 100 Butterfly, but the 100 Back, 50 Fly, and 200 Back.”
The typical response is that Shields is just a short course specialist. Yes, he is one of the two-or-three best swimmers underwater in the world, but this would not say that he should then be excluded from the world of long course swimming.
Shields’ response to a question over his ability in long course is short-and-sweet:
“51.6,” he responds, referring to the long course 100 fly that he swam at the US Open. That swim ranks him 8th in the world this year, and as the second-fastest American after Ryan Lochte.
“As I grow I’ll do it more often. Then I’ll get better. In that order,” he says confidently.
But what about the backstrokes? Shields has raked up quite a bit of cash on his trip swimming backstroke races, and is a former NCAA Champion in the 100.
“The World Cups are a chess match,” Tom said. “I have learned to risk certain things–silver in the 200 fly in Moscow, I knew from Eindhoven to Berlin Pawel (Korzeniowski) was able to drop a second and half and beat me, and I likely could not drop as much as he could again, I was right he went 1 51 2 in Dubai–to gain other things–like a possible gold in the 100 Back. In Dubai it worked out pretty well, although Doha could go the exact opposite and I am facing those same choices. I haven’t trained backstroke in almost a year now but it looks like I am going back to it for the falls at least. The 200 I picked up because it was at the end of the meet so why not?”
If Shields is going to ‘make it’ in swimming, his timing perhaps couldn’t be any better for a Rio target. He finished his collegiate career in early 2013, had the experience of swimming under pressure for 2013 (and missing the Worlds team), now will be able to go after a lower-pressure Pan Pac Championship team in 2014, Worlds in 2015, and then the biggest of them all, the Olympic Trials in 2016. It’s a natural building of pressure with small steps.
The opportunity for the highest success is there.
But Tom isn’t focusing on those things. He’s focusing on just building his confidence, working on the things he can within himself. When asked what his goals are for this coming season, where there’s no long course Worlds or Olympic Games, his answer wasn’t complex. His answer boiled the year down to a few simple concepts.
“Listen to Dave, Yuri (Suguiyama), and Nick (Folker). Learn from my racing. Believe I can be there when it counts. I’ve missed so many teams I am conditioned to think its not for me. But it is.”