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Hometown Hero
by Greg Russell

A young man who spent countless hours on the U of M campus shows what dreams are made of.

Gil Stovall in the poolIt was “kid stuff” trouble that landed Gil Stovall in the pool. Sixteen or so years later, he is set to make an even bigger splash, but this time on the world stage.

“After my sister started swimming, me and my brother were always running around getting into trouble,” says Gil, 22. “We asked my parents if we could start swimming and they were tired of keeping an eye on us, so they said, ‘Sure.’”

This kid stuff eventually grew to “man stuff”: One brother wound up in Iraq, the other in this month’s Olympic Games in Beijing. They both got their “training wheels,” so to speak, for a sport they so dearly love on the University of Memphis campus as members of the Memphis Tiger Swimming Club.

Sound like storybook drama? This is a tale that one day might show up as a “coming-to-a-theater-near-you” flick.

“They were just boys,” says sister Dottie, 24, peppering her recollection of a sister growing up with two brothers with laughter. “They played, and played rough and were very competitive. [They were] always trying to outdo their older sister because that would be a big defeat. We were always looking for some way to race. We’d set up obstacles in the house, try to time each other and beat each other. There was always a lot of wrestling going on.”

If they had been wrestlers, they would have made for a tag team Jerry Lawler would have killed for. Dottie is now a coach for Memphis Tiger Swimming; Brooks, by some accounts equally talented as brother Gil, is eyeing a comeback in the pool at West Point after a stint in Iraq; and Gil, who fellow swimmers have tagged “the future of the sport,” swam the second fastest 200 meter butterfly in history at the Olympic trials in July to make this year’s games. He swims preliminaries August 11.

Big stuff, eh? Just ask the man himself.

“The first night, when I made the team, I didn’t fall asleep until four in the morning,” he says. “That was the last time I looked at the clock. I still had the 100 fly left and I had to get refocused and I couldn’t spend all my time reflecting. I had to get back to a regular schedule pretty quickly.”

The one clock that mattered that night was one that must have flashed brightly a thousand times in Stovall’s mind: 1:53.86.

At dinner with Team Stovall after the finals, there was still disbelief.

Gil Stovall and family
Gil Stovall, with sister Dottie (top) and brother Brooks (above), will swim preliminaries Aug. 11 in Beijing. He says of the Olympics, “It is an honor. I have been on national teams and at World Games but never on this level have I gotten to represent the U.S. It is an amazing feeling.”
“I kept looking at him,” says Dottie. “Second faster swimmer in the world in history: my brother. I am still trying to make that connection. To me, he is Gil, my little brother. To think of him in that big of a light is hard to get to.”

For Gil to qualify for the team, he had to finish second in the finals. To some, including NBC announcer Rowdy Gaines, it was a foregone conclusion that Michael Phelps and training partner Davis Tarwater would swim to the two top spots in the 200m butterfly and Olympic berths — both had the fastest times going into the finals.

But that wouldn’t make for a very good story, would it? So Gil came through for himself, for his fans.

“The race went pretty much exactly how I thought it would,” he says. “He [Tarwater] and Phelps went out faster than me, but I swam my own race. I told myself if I can see Tarwater at the 150, I am pretty sure I can get him. So sure enough, when I turned at the 150, as I touched the wall, he was a little bit ahead of me, but he was still doing his turn. I knew it then. I was like, ‘I can do this.’”

If there is ever a moment when a young athlete moves to the next level, this surely was Gil’s defining moment. He reeled in Tarwater to finish second in 1:53.86, three seconds better than his previous best and the second best mark ever in the event. If there had been another 50 meters left, he might have gotten the world’s greatest swimmer in Phelps. Nice poolside dramatics, yes, but maybe the best is yet to come.

“If you look back at the NCAAs in the 200 fly this past year, it is amazing that he bettered that record, which was a 17- or 18-year-old record,” says former Tiger coach David Smith, who coached Gil the last six years before college. “He is just getting into his own now. He is maturing, and he is going to be a lot better. He doesn’t realize how good he is going to be as he gets older.”

Like a good distance runner who uses a strong kick to pull ahead of opponents at the end of races, Gil lets others set the pace, sitting back in the pack but finishing with a vengeance.

“It is what I train for, it is the way my coaches train me,” says Gil. “We do stuff every day working on the last 50, really pushing no matter how much it is hurting. I do it enough in practice to give myself confidence that I can do it in a meet. I just know that I have it.”

Says Smith, “He has really learned how to race. The way he got second in the 200 fly, he came back on his third 50, and on that last 50 going in he made a tremendous move the last 15 to 20 meters.”

So how does Gil keep getting faster? He will tell you that he doesn’t know, but Dottie believes she has the answer.

“He’s got the confidence this year that has taken him awhile to get to,” she says. “I think, when it comes to, ‘Hey, I have this one shot,’ he puts all of his heart into it, especially that last 50 meters. He knows there are tons of people in Memphis supporting him. He not only wanted to do it for himself, but for all of the other people who are fans.”

Gil says he has always looked up to the Ian Crockers of the world. Now it is his turn.

“I have had several parents come to me teared up just talking about him and the role model that he has been for their kids,” says Dottie. “And how excited they are for him making the team because he is such a special person. I think he is a dream role model as a person and as an athlete. I am glad he is in that spot. We definitely need good role models.”

Gil arrived in Beijing about a week before the August 8 opening ceremonies after training with the U.S. swim team in Palo Alto, Calif., and recently in Singapore.

Adding to the storybook tale almost on cue, Gil says that Brooks, a fierce opponent when the two swam against each other in the Tiger swim club — but a brother who has endured more than his share of personal struggles — has been a motivator.

“With the decisions he has had to make in the past year and the hardships he has been through, he has been an inspiration,” Gil says. “The way that he has stepped up and taken responsibility for himself, especially being over in Iraq. He is an awesome guy.”

This story is sure to have many more chapters. You can bet it will be a page-turner.

“Obviously I am still very excited about a good swim, but now that I have made the team and achieved one goal, it is time to move on to the next,” says Gil. “It is not just about making the team, it is about bringing home medals. That is where my head is right now.”

Stay tuned.

Gil Stoval in the pool
MTS swimming in success

When recently retired U of M faculty member Richard “Dick” Fadgen began Memphis Tiger Swimming 40 years ago, Nixon was in office, the Vietnam War raged on and no Olympic swimmers had ever been produced in the Memphis area. My, have times changed.

With Gil Stovall making this year’s U.S. Olympic Swim Team, a total of four alums of the program have competed on the world’s most grand athletic stage: Gabrielle Rose, daughter of U of M philanthropist Mike Rose, swam for Brazil in 1996 and the U.S. in 2000; Jon Olsen, who was a silver medalist four times as part of a relay team, took part in the 1992 and 1996 games; and Michelle Richardson won a silver medal in the 800m free style in 1984. Besides Stovall, three other MTS swimmers — Lauren Harrington, Brooke Watson and Keith Laabs — took part in this year’s trials in Omaha in July.

“We started from scratch over at the old Kennedy pool (Park Avenue Campus),” says Fadgen. “It has grown and grown ever since.

“We have had a great number of swimmers come through here over the years,” he adds. “My dentist is one of my former swimmers, my lawyer is one of my former swimmers, my doctor, too.”

Fadgen says the facilities the U of M offers is a major reason the club has grown and become a national force in producing elite swimmers.

The Student Recreation Center boasts two Olympic-size pools and an outdoor 25-yard short course diving well. The pools include short course and long course non-turbulent lane lines, 32 starting blocks, an overhead observation deck and two Colorado 5000 timing systems with display.

Former coach David Smith observes,

“We don’t have competitive swimming at the NCAA level here, so we have had a lot of kids that go to other universities. But a lot come back to the U of M to get their graduate degrees.”

The club averages 150 to 180 swimmers at any one time. Ages range from 5 to 18. Their Web site is memphistigerswimming.com.

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