NPR logo At 16, This Swimmer Broke Michael Phelps' Record. What's Next?

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At 16, This Swimmer Broke Michael Phelps' Record. What's Next?

Justin Lynch competes in April at Skyline Aquatic Center in Mesa, Ariz. Donald Miralle/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images hide caption

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Donald Miralle/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Justin Lynch competes in April at Skyline Aquatic Center in Mesa, Ariz.

Donald Miralle/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

What do you do when you already have beaten Michael Phelps' record at 16 years old?

For swimmer Justin Lynch, who turned 18 last month, he just keeps practicing, chasing that record-breaking performance, with an eye on the 2016 Rio Olympics.

His memory-making moment came at the USA Swimming world championship trials in June 2013. He'd broken a Phelps age-group record in the 100-meter butterfly at 14, but competition was stiffer among the older swimmers. While many of his competitors in the 15–16 age group already had ballooned up with muscles and ripped six-packs, Lynch looked pretty ordinary, his appearance giving no hint at the beast he was in the water.

The moment was caught on tape. Once his outstretched fingertips hit the wall, Lynch lifted his head up to the outside world as the wave of water caught up with him. "I could hear my friends screaming at the end of the pool, but I didn't know for sure until I turned around," Lynch told OZY. He slowly, perhaps timidly, turned to see the four red numbers: 52.75, another new age-group record. And a new era had begun. He fought off a smile as it triggered on both sides of his mouth, but once his competitors began congratulating him, he gave in.

Since then, Lynch has only gotten faster. He spoke with OZY from his home in Vallejo, Calif., where he grew up. He was packing before setting off for his first year at the University of California, 45 minutes away in Berkeley, where he intends to major in business.

He chose the school, he says, in part for coach David Durden's reputation for teaching underwater work: the quiet, transitional parts of the race at the start and after turns. The Cal team is also the reigning NCAA champion in men's swimming and diving. Lynch is headed for the big leagues.

He seems remarkably well-balanced and well-spoken for an 18-year-old who's getting fed a taste of fame. For every compliment he allows, he offers a slightly self-deprecating remark and a gentle laugh. He used the word "lucky" again and again, as if that were all that allowed him to beat Phelps' times, and he's quick to credit his peers and his coaches for his success.

College will seem familiar in many ways. "I know all of the guys on the team already — I've swam against most of them before, so I feel really comfortable there." Which is a good thing, since he'll be spending plenty of time with them: hours in the pool each afternoon, plus three morning sessions a week. On Sundays, rest. Or at least a dry-off with land sessions.

His record-breaking swim made headlines in 2013, but not just for his time. With an African-American father and a Filipina mother, Lynch will be the only minority swimmer on the Cal team. The sport is overwhelmingly white, perhaps a result of the history of discrimination in access to municipal swimming pools. The modern-day result can be tragic: Nearly 70 percent of African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 have little to no swimming ability, and they drown at rates three times that of white children.

Lynch appreciates the potential cultural impact of his swimming, along with those of other top African-American swimmers, such as Cullen Jones, the four-time Olympic medalist and the first African-American to break a world record in swimming.

"I think it would be cool to break down those barriers. Cullen Jones already got that started, but if I could help bring other minorities into the sport, that would be great," Lynch said.

Why swimming? Thank his big sis. "She's the one in the family who started swimming first, and I followed her."

He's 6-foot-1, and his dad thought he had a future in basketball. "Most African-American kids play basketball or football, and I started with basketball because my dad liked it at the time, so he pushed it for me," he said.

But Lynch kept an eye on his sister's swimming experience and went for that. "Neither of my parents are swimmers, so it wasn't necessarily an obvious choice," he said. But that kind of height thrives not just on a basketball court but also in the water, and once he dove in, it was all over.

He admits he's "not a party animal," and his introverted tendencies likely made the silence of the pool more appealing than the commotion of the basketball court. Unlike most swimmers, he doesn't listen to pump-up music on headphones before he swims. "I've tried it," he said, "but I'd rather be in my own head and my own state of mind."

He swam head-to-head against Phelps in a USA Swimming Grand Prix event in Mesa, Ariz., in April. Phelps, who was 28 and recently had returned to the sport after a brief retirement, and his former Olympic teammate Ryan Lochte, then 29, took the top spots in the 100-meter butterfly. Lynch came in fourth, about a second and a half behind them, astonishing for a 17-year-old more than a decade younger than the Olympians. The meet defined Lynch as the event's torch-carrier.

For Lynch, achieving so much so early in his career is a blessing and a curse. The grueling Berkeley swim schedule, on top of academics, and combined with almost impossible expectations, could be a recipe for burnout.

"My biggest challenge in the coming years will be staying motivated," he said. "For me, I'm just thrilled to be able to train with a coach who really knows the details that can make the difference."

He'll spend the next two years in training, hoping to make the cut for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. The games will come around right as Lynch hits 20, which is considered a peak age for male swimmers at the 100-meter distance. A chance for a gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly would come with opportunities to break two more Phelps marks — the Olympic record and the world record.

Shannon Sims is a writer, photographer and lawyer living in Brazil, and a recent Forest & Society Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. Follow her: @simssh.