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Pooling your resources

Olympic hopeful urges local youths to live up to their potential

Sunday, August 15, 1999

By Laura Pace, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Byron Davis doesn't believe in victims.The 29-year-old Olympic hopeful looks into the faces of children and tells them, time and time again, that the key to life is choice.

Byron Davis, 29, a member of the U.S. Olympic swim team, applauds Rachelle Hein, 8, of the North Side, as she finishes the 200-meter mix at the Highland Park swimming pool yesterday. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

"Change your choices and you change your life," Davis said. "All of us have obstacles."

Three Rivers Aquatics, a swim club that trains on the South Side, brought Davis to Pittsburgh for three days to promote the sport of swimming and to try to reach at-risk children who might not be living up to their potential.

In August 2000, Davis, of Los Angeles, will compete for one of two spots on the United States Olympics swimming team. He could become the first African-American swimmer on the team.

It's not his first attempt. He missed the 1996 Olympics by two-tenths of a second and was ready to give up.

"But my passion was in the water," said the sleekly shaven Davis. He took two years off, wrote a book, coached some Division I college swimming and started training again.

Now his sights are on the 2000 Games in Sidney.

He's financing his trip in part by becoming a motivational speaker, with the hope of turning his thoughts into springboards for the success of future generations.

This weekend, the butterfly and freestyle expert spoke with kids at the Highland Park Pool and attended the Eastern Zone swimming championships held at the University of Pittsburgh. Most of his message deals with taking charge and not allowing bad circumstances and bad luck to interfere with success.

"It's our responsibility to perform at our very best," he said. "God has given us all time, talent and ability."

Success is just dependent on the level of discipline and the eradication of fear, he said.

He said fear should never be an excuse for poor performance. "Things never turn out the way they should. Things never turn out the way they shouldn't," Davis said. "Things turn out the way they do."

Once athletes -- or anyone, for that matter -- realize that there is "good, bad and ugly in any journey," then fear is taken out of the equation.

Those who are in underprivileged situations just need to have bigger dreams, he said. Keeping options open can help. "The person who has the most options is usually the person who gets the best deals."

Davis seems to take his own advice. He grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, where his father was murdered during a drug deal when Davis was 6. Davis' mom had to take charge and to make sure he and his sister would make it.

"I enjoyed my childhood," he said. "She did pretty well."

He learned to swim at a Cleveland YMCA at 8, then went to UCLA on a full scholarship and graduated with a degree in political science. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, pro beach volleyball player Annett Buckner-Davis.

His 6 1/2-hour daily training schedule includes 2 1/2 hours of swimming in the morning and evening. He also works through 1 1/2 hours of grueling "dry land" exercises, which include a modified Navy SEAL program.

Olympians have told him the journey to the games is more nerve-wracking than the Olympics themselves.

"Once you get to the Olympics, it's all pie in the sky," he said. It's in the moments of the trials where the champions are born. "It's one of those experiences where you find out just how confident you are in you at that moment in time," he said.

Davis, a "Today Show" veteran, has spoken at corporate functions for Authentic Fitness, the owners of Speedo, Nissan and MSNBC. He's working on his second book, "What Champions Think About," which he says will function as a "cup of water that I pass on to you as you run the marathon."

At 29, he has met some critics who say he's too old to compete. But he disagrees. "Over half the national team is over 25."

He'll find out in a year. In the meantime, there's more training, more writing and more speaking.

The faces of the Pittsburgh children he's met are exactly like the faces he sees every day. Some asked him how to perfect their strokes, some asked how fast he swims. The talking will help their technique. "One of the keys to swimming fast is asking questions."

But deep down, all children want and need the same thing, he said.

"We all deal with pain," he said. "I've experienced the dark days of the soul. ... That is no excuse for you to allow any hindrances between you and your dreams."

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