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This Shouts from the Stands was written by Benton Ferebee for a sports writing class at Memphis University School, regarding his swim coach Gil Stovall, whom he credits as being one of his main reasons for deciding to swim in college.
And they’re out under World Record pace!
July 2, 2008. The United States Olympic Trials in Swimming. Omaha’s CenturyLink Center right down the road from the University of Nebraska. Michael Phelps and training partner David Tarwater were, by the second turn, not merely pulling away from the field but also recording splits in the 200-meter butterfly that had never been posted in human history. Three lanes over, Gil Stovall, hearing the announcer’s call, started to panic. “Oh…Oh, God!” Stovall never went out with the intention of grabbing the lead, was perpetually worried about “falling off the last 50,” had always relied on his kick, his ability to come from behind to post a fast time, to win races. Had he made a mistake now, gone out too fast in a race for one of two precious spots on the U.S. Olympic team? Unaware that it was only Phelps and Tarwater who had begun the race is such a frenzied manner, Stovall was forced to plow ahead and hope for the best.
A few weeks before the 2008 Trials, Stovall and Tarwater faced off at a meet in California. Neither of the swimmers were shaved or tapered, but they were still looking for some good times going into Trials. The two, who have known each other for a long time and who are very familiar with racing against each other, were very close going into the finals of the 200 fly. However, Tarwater “waxed” Stovall while still donning a “big ‘ol beard” that made him look more like a lumberjack than a world-class swimmer. This swim struck fear into Stovall’s mind, especially because Stovall had “not only…never beaten him straight up, but I had never also swum a time faster than his.” But going into the finals of the 200 fly at Trials, Stovall had to “stick to the game plan I had maintained for…17 years to that point.”
Gil Stovall had not been born in the water, like most Olympic-caliber swimmers. His first love was gymnastics. He only got into the water when his mother got him on the diving team, ostensibly in an effort to take advantage of his already burgeoning gymnastic skill. But when the coaches of the competitive swim teams at the Germantown Athletic Center saw how Stovall would run and dive off the diving boards and try to race people on the other side of the pool while swim practice was going on, they convince him to try swimming as well. ” which led to him and his brother, Brooks, joining their sister on the Germantown (Memphis) Gators swim team. Soon after this introduction to the sport, Gil and his siblings switched to the YMCA Barracudas and met two coaches who would most significantly shape their futures: Dick Fadgen and Corey Horton. Fadgen who, from the late 1970s through the 1990s, had produced numerous Olympians for Memphis Tigers Swimming club. It was Fadgen who recognized Gil’s untapped talent and pushed him to explore fulfill his potential. Horton, an accomplished Ironman triathlete, shaped Stovall’s swimming career by teaching him the hard knocks work ethic that got Stovall very, very far in the sport.
50 meters to go and Tarwater was starting to fade. Though still close enough to touch Phelps’ feet, he was coming back to the field. Stovall, a dismal 7th after the first 50m, had, in one short lap, made it a three-man race. Though still separated by over half a second, Tarwater seemed to be in the driver’s seat, but Gil was gaining and was now at his hips.
Even early in his career, Gil and his coaches knew that swimming came very easily and naturally to him. As Gil puts it, “Just something about the water, I understood it, I understood how I needed to move my body through the water technically.” This early showing of promise in him was only augmented by the great coaching he would receive from Fadgen, Horton, Christie Sanders (then Christie Sax), Dave Smith, and others. However, the single greatest advantage that Gil had for his swimming career was having his brother swimming alongside him.
Brooks and Gil started swimming at the same time with Gators. They jumped around between several local teams, from Gators to Barracudas, from Barracudas to Tigers, from Tigers to Memphis Thunder Aquatic Club, which was started by Coach Horton in a “single lane, 25-meter pool in the back of Margo McCauley’s backyard,” and finally ending up back at Tigers. Even though their relationship through swimming “got intense at times,” Gil stills feels “even more fortunate that I got to [achieve high success] with my brother.” Stovall continues, saying that he feels like Brooks is “a large reason why I made it as far as I did because, I mean, he was tough as nails and he was gunnin’ for me, all the time.” This constant chase pushed Gil even harder than the work ethic instilled on him by Horton took him because of his pride. Gil felt that “being the older brother I had to, you know, hold him down, hold him off.” Now reflecting on his time swimming, Gil remarks that having his brother sharing exciting and great moments with him in the sport changes his view of his career as he looks back on it.
Gil, and eventually Brooks, attended Ridgeway High School, a “really, really nice public school” at the time. However, the all-star swimmers immediately faced an obstacle in regards to the school’s state swim team: they were the only swimmers in the school. The school that had “won best of the preps all four years I was there” had a measly two swimmers. Seeking to remedy this and, in turn, bring a full relay team to state, the brothers resorted to begging their friends and classmates to just give it a try. Most notable, at least in Gil’s mind, was the addition of their friend Will Hudgens, former University of Memphis quarterback and extremely gifted athlete. After three years of Gil’s begging, Hudgens finally relented and decided to train to swim at state. By the time state rolled around, Will had around 3 months of training under his belt. The guys suited up for the finals of the 200-yard freestyle relay. As Will got onto the blocks, awaiting his turn in the eventual 2nd place relay, the Stovall brothers anxiously awaited. What followed was “one of the absolute highlights of [Gil’s] swimming career,” and that fact is very obvious as Gil immediately perks up while telling the story. Gil recounts that Will, who three months prior to this race had never swam before, “[dove] in and [swam] an entire 50 freestyle with his head out of the water, no flip turn, and he still split a 23.2” This showing of relative excellence from someone very new to the sport depicts Hudgens’ incredible athleticism, but it also displays Gil’s ability to push and help out people swimming alongside him, an attribute that would shine in his future coaching career.
25 meters to go. Gil starts to inch up and pass the dead in the water Tarwater. Excited thoughts begin to race through Gil’s head: “Oh my God… This is gonna happen!” However, he had to compose himself. Before the race had started, Gil gave himself one stipulation: “if I was at Davis’ hips going into the last 50, I was gonna run him down, no matter what,” and he intended to keep his word on that.
Due to his extremely successful high school swimming career, Gil garnered a lot of national attention from colleges. He says, “By the time I was in middle school, I certainly knew that I wanted to swim in college, and not just that I wanted to swim in college, but I wanted to swim at a good…Division I, solid, competitive team.” This goal constantly drove Gil as he worked towards it, and, by fall of his senior year, had a narrowed down list for official visits: Florida. Georgia, Ohio State, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. By the time for his Ohio State visit rolled around, however, he was dead set on Georgia due to their team dynamic, schooling, and, most importantly, the coaches. Gil describes his coaches Jack Bauerle and Harvey Humphries as “beyond great swim coaches, they are great men, and you get that sense when you meet ‘em immediately… they genuinely care about all of their athletes as people first.” Gil even remembers his first practice at Georgia, coming onto the pool deck and up comes Coach Bauerle. Bauerle, who had just been named the women’s head coach for the 2008 Olympic team, declared, “Gil, I’m going to China in 2008, and you’re coming with me” so confidently that it became the “first legitimate thought that I had that I felt like I was capable of [making the Olympic team] and that was something that I should strive to work towards.” Gil continued his training with this new goal in mind and put himself in a good position to achieve it. However, he had to finish out his college career at Georgia first. As a senior, Gil went into the NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving Championship meet as the favorite to win his top event, the 200-yard butterfly. He also had his eyes set on a very fast goal time that would have broken the NCAA record, the longest standing record at that point, held by former Tennessee and Olympic butterflyer, Mel Stewart. Gil swam the race, and when he looked up at the clock, it flashed 1:41.33. He had broken the record. However, two things immediately became more important to him than this feat. First, his training partner, freshman flyer Mark Dylla, had finish second. According to Gil, “that’s probably what I remember most about that moment…the hug that me and Mark gave each other after we finished the race.” Second, Gil, upon further review of the clock, was angry because he had not met his goal time for the meet. As soon as Gil got out of the water, he received the star treatment: applause, congratulation, and, of course, cameras in his face. Still dazed from what he had just put his body through, it did not quite register with him right when the reporter tried to hand him a cellphone during the interview. He thought that the reporter was trying to hand it to someone else or that he was not supposed to be interviewed yet. However, once she signaled for Gil to take the phone, he heard the voice of the former record holder, Mel Stewart who had become friends with Gil leading up to the meet and who “had an inkling that I would be able to [break the record].” Gil attributes this to the “very awesome, close-knit brotherhood” presented through the sport of swimming. He continues, saying that “there’s something just very special about swimmers on any level and the type of character they breed… it’s just very, very close, and…I feel very lucky to be a part of it ‘cus not all sports have that type of atmosphere.”
In late July, early August of 2008, Gil and the rest of the Team USA athletes headed out to Beijing. He felt much better about his chances to swim fast than he did going into Trials, which was attributed to “lots of great training session through the camp at Stanford and then in Singapore.” He had been able to smoothly transition into training with Olympic level swimmers with the only learning curve being that “even if you were having a bad day at practice at Georgia, you could find somebody to beat. If you were having a bad day at practice with the Olympic team, you weren’t gonna beat anybody.” Through prelims, he “felt great… I did really, really well swimming very easy.” However, he started to notice he was feeling funny when he woke up for semifinals. Once he got in the water, he immediately knew something was wrong. He remembers feeling “very, very weak… I didn’t have the power.” Going into the ready room and already feeling “stomach sick,” he knew that “it wasn’t nerves because I had been nervous, and it’s not beyond me.” He somehow managed to get through his race before the throwing up began. While he was walking around the back of the diving well, he had to stop in the divers’ showers throw up before the “long hallway of media you have to walk through to get out of the area.” In between bouts of sickness, he tried to watch the scoreboard for the 2nd heat of semifinals. He soon came to the cold realization that he had gotten 9th by .01, the slimmest of margins knocking him out of medal contention. At first, he thought, “This isn’t fair… This really sucks.” However, these thoughts soon passed as he contemplated his future swimming career while throwing up behind the diving well. Looking back, Gil believes that after “seeing his name come up 9th… I knew that was the end of my swimming career.” But this was not a saddening realization to him. He “had actually achieved everything that I wanted to out of my swimming career.” Those goals of swimming in college and contributing to a Division 1 program had been achieved. He just realized that “you’ve gotta have a fire, you’ve gotta have something that you’re shooting for… when you’ve achieved just about everything that you want to achieve in an area of your life, it’s really difficult to find motivation to train as hard as you did before.” However, he was not ready to leave the sport altogether just yet, and he still I not. He still swims on his own to stay in shape and even brought his same drive to his post-competitive swimming. According to Bryan Parker, a former teammate and coach of Gil’s and a good friend, “Gil was one of the only people that I’ve seen that can push themselves… so hard he would vomit.” Even on the day of his wedding, Gil went to swim at the Ric Nuber YMCA and, at the end of his workout, sprinted a 50-yard free. He ended up recreating these memories that Parker has of him and puked all over the pool deck. In addition to his continued swimming, he was fortunate enough to go back to his former teams of Memphis Tigers and Germantown Gators to coach. Tigers was where he encountered Pace Clark. Gil saw a similar potential and drive in Pace from a young age, and he pushed Pace to not squander his potential. Pace would eventually move on to follow almost exactly in Gil’s footsteps as a butterflyer at Georgia who has a good chance to qualify for the Olympics in the 200 fly, just like Gil. I am also a product of Gil’s coaching, and I can say that he has been the most influential coach I have had. Gil recalls meeting with me in the office at Memphis Tigers almost 4 years ago. I was trying to make some decisions about my future swimming career, and Gil helped me get back on track to pursue the sport that has had such a profound impact on my life. Just like Coaches Baurle and Humphries, Gil cares much more about his swimmers outside the than inside.
“This is either gonna be really good or really bad.” After a brief moment of terror following a long stroke into the wall, Gil erupted at the sight of the 2 next to his name. He had stamped his ticket to Beijing and was so excited that he almost nailed Phelps in the face as he fist pumped the air. After getting out of the pool, he looked back at the scoreboard. “I saw my goal time up on the board…I had beat it.”
About Benton Ferebee
Benton Ferebee is a recent graduate of Memphis University School and will be swimming for Brandeis University starting in Fall 2018. In his six years of swimming, he has competed for Memphis Tigers Swimming and Memphis Thunder Aquatic Club. He says Gil Stoval was his swim coach for a year at Memphis Tigers and coached him at a time when he was considering quitting. Stovall convinced him to let him be his coach for a season and reevaluate after. Ferebee’s 10th-grade season ended up being his best and probably the main reason he decided to swim in college.