Reviving an Olympic Dream, 25 Years Later A quarter-century ago, swimmer Hodding Carter just missed qualifying for the Olympic trials. Now 45, he is training for a long-shot bid at qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. Carter chronicles his quest in a new book, Off the Deep End.
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Reviving an Olympic Dream, 25 Years Later

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Reviving an Olympic Dream, 25 Years Later

Reviving an Olympic Dream, 25 Years Later

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(Soundbite of splashing)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This weekend, a swimmer tries to keep alive his dream of reaching the Beijing Olympics. He's been doing everything he can to train.

Mr. HODDING CARTER (All-American Swimmer): I've discovered this brand new method of not swimming very far but swimming as hard as you can. I mean, I pull a parachute behind me when I swim, so it's like pulling like about 70 or 80 pounds of dead weight through the water.

INSKEEP: The man who pulled the parachute is Hodding Carter. We found him just after a training session in a North Carolina pool. He wants to swim fast enough this weekend to reach the U.S. Olympic trials. He's trying, even though he's about 20 years older than most people who make the Olympic games.

What gave you the idea that you should be trying to qualify for the Olympics in your 40s?

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Mr. CARTER: Well, you know, I think it's pretty obvious I was a little bit, you know, insane.

INSKEEP: Hodding Carter makes his living doing things that can seem insane. I've followed his work for years, ever since we met in one of the most remote parts of America. I was reporting on a tiny West Virginia town called Thurmond, which had a population then of about 11. Hodding Carter had a part-time job there at the local post office.

Mr. CARTER: I'm actually, I'm called a CPU. I'm a contract postal unit.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Mr. CARTER: They said I can't really call myself a postmaster, but I'm doing it anyway.

INSKEEP: Carter and his wife invited me into their home, and he handed me a book that he'd written. The book chronicled his effort to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark across America. A few years later, I turned on the radio and heard Hodding Carter's voice. He was describing how he'd sailed a replica Viking ship across the Atlantic.

Mr. CARTER: There's no below-decks, there's no cabin, and of course there's no motor on it. If I had known what it would have been like ahead of time, there's no way I would've done it.

INSKEEP: Carter made a book out of that journey, too. He says he spent much of his life on the water or in it.

Mr. CARTER: Swimming in the Arctic Sea; I've walked through the sewers in London. I've swum part of the Missouri River and part of the Clearwater. I mean, everywhere I go, I have to go swim. I mean, it doesn't really matter if it's, like, the ugliest, scariest-looking body of water or the most sublime, beautiful place. I'm going to get in it.

INSKEEP: There's yet another book in Hodding Carter's latest quest. It's called "Off the Deep End," and it chronicles Carter's effort to reach a goal that he missed in his youth. He was an accomplished college swimmer who dreamed of the Olympics.

If the name Hodding Carter sounds familiar, it's because his grandfather, Hodding Carter, was a famous newspaper editor in Mississippi. His father, Hodding Carter, was a senior official under President Jimmy Carter, and that Hodding Carter told his 20-something son to move on from swimming.

Mr. CARTER: Well the truth is, my dad made me do it.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Mr. CARTER: I love being able to blame him. But I was really that close my senior year. I'd gotten into the Peace Corps, and one day he and I were driving around New Orleans, and I just sort of brought up my plan to defer the Peace Corps and keep training for the Olympics, and he slammed on the brakes and said Hodding, you are not going to do that. It's time for you to get on with your life.

And he had bankrolled my whole childhood, obviously, but also my swimming career. You know, paying for my summers when I was training five to six hours a day instead of working. And so I just thought it was time for me to finally grow up and, you know, take care of myself for a while.

INSKEEP: I want to understand. Did you agree with him as soon as he said that, or were you obeying him?

Mr. CARTER: I was obeying him.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Mr. CARTER: I didn't have the sense to agree with him or anything, or the maybe wisdom. Also, I mean, I don't know if he was right. You know, maybe it would have been better to have done it then. I would've gotten this out of my system. I wouldn't be like, you know, balancing my four kids on one arm and trying to run off to a swimming pool, you know, with the rest of my body.

INSKEEP: Just to understand the difficulty of this, what does it take to go from a standing start, reasonably fit adult, not so young anymore, to being Olympic caliber?

Mr. CARTER: It takes complete, utter, idiotic dedication, where you just… I've - in the beginning, I was working out five hours a day. I was drinking all the, you know, super recovery drinks that everyone, you know, forces on you. I was taking creatine, you know, a muscle supplement that made my muscles get bigger and puffier. And I even took a job at the Y as an assistant aquatics director, and I became the swim coach for my swim team that my kids are on, and I mean, it's - my overall focus is around the water.

INSKEEP: In this book, you recount that one of your early experiences as a writer was telling the story of the great Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, when he attempted a comeback around his 40th birthday.

Mr. CARTER: Right. I really wish you hadn't brought that one up, because you know, I feel so, you know, guilty about that now, of course. And also I can see how dumb I was, you know, as a 28-year-old.

INSKEEP: You basically wrote it as though he were affected by chlorine poisoning.

Mr. CARTER: Right. I obviously was a misguided youth. But you know, actually that brings up a serious thing, which is that I think everyone believes that as you get older, you're going to lose your muscle mass. This is what we've been hit over the head with. We all know that we're going to get weaker. And so you know, I was just ignorant back then, because since then, I've learned that no, you don't lose that muscle mass. Guys in their 40s should be going to the Olympics.

INSKEEP: Maybe they should, though Hodding Carter may not. Just to reach the U.S. Olympic trials, he has to beat an absolute time. Tomorrow in Vermont, he has to swim 50 meters in 23.4 seconds - which he's never done. Still, Carter says he's stronger than he was a few years ago, when he entered a swim meet against older men.

Mr. CARTER: And I was just doing it as a joke, because I knew I was just going to kill them, decimate them. And I swim in this race, where I dive in - in the beginning, I'm doing exactly what I thought - like I was, I'm just blasting by them.

I do the first flip turn, and I'm feeling good. The second flip turn, I'm starting to feel like something's horribly wrong. And by the end, I crawl out of the pool on my hands and knees, and there's no blood in my hands and my feet because you know, my heart just said, you know, it needs everything.

You know, I crawl to the wall, wait there for like a while, and then I make it to the locker room. And this man came in with his walker and said he'd been the guy who had been racing next to me. He patted me on the back and says it's okay, it gets better after a while.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Mr. CARTER: And the very next heat after me, every single one, beat my time.

INSKEEP: Do you think you could get through that meet a little more efficiently today?

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Mr. CARTER: I think so, yeah. I think that I could - I might even be the guy patting someone on the back.

INSKEEP: Hodding Carter's latest book is called "Off the Deep End," and you can read an excerpt at NPR.org.

(Soundbite of Music)

INSKEEP: From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.

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