SAN ANTONIO - Two Mondays after a failed Olympic bid, and Josh Davis is still swimming laps. But only small ones. The same efficient freestyle motion that carried Mr. Davis to three Olympic gold medals in relay events now takes him across his backyard swimming pool in about four strokes. Soon the quick flip turns make him too dizzy to continue and he hooks himself into what he calls his "human fishing pole," allowing him to tether himself to dry land and swim in place.
Some aspects of Mr. Davis's life are the same since he failed last month in his attempt to return to the Olympics. When he downs a tall glass of pink lemonade in one gulp, it's not because he's in a hurry: he's just always done it that way. Earlier this summer he'd meet with part-time swimming coach Fletcher Watson for several hours of intense Olympic training in a large pool. Today, Mr. Watson, as part of his job with Community Pool Management, drops by Mr. Davis's house to check chlorine levels in his swimming pool.
Approaching his 32nd birthday, Mr. Davis is looking back to almost a lifetime in water. Even though at least one coach advised young Josh to quit swimming because he wasn't very fast, Mr. Watson-Josh's sixth-grade coach-says the swimmer "never backed down from a challenge. He wasn't a natural, but he was a coachable." Many children avoided tougher races with longer distances, but Josh, always wanting to compete, grew into a swimmer during middle school and high school.
During college Mr. Davis proved coachable in another way. After his University of Texas at Austin (UT) swim team won the national championship during his freshman year in 1991, Mr. Davis says he was "partying hard, training hard"-but then a mystery illness left him bedridden. That's when "God got my attention. He gave me the strength and courage to respond to His truth, and gradually the scales fell off my eyes."
From there, Mr. Davis said his relationship with his teammates changed. Instead of hitting all the parties, evening Bible studies consumed Mr. Davis's time. After marrying Shantel Cornelius in 1995, Mr. Davis turned his attention to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. There he helped the American relay team win gold medals in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, the 4x100-meter freestyle relay and the 4x100-meter medley relay. In 2000 he led the American 4x100-meter and 4x200-meter freestyle relay teams to silver.
By 2001, Mr. Davis was a full-time swimmer, speaker, and father of three (February 2003 brought a fourth child). To support his growing family, Mr. Davis took sponsorships from Speedo, Mutual of Omaha, and PowerBar. He also delivered motivational talks for his sponsors and spoke regularly to civic groups and at swimming clinics. He particularly enjoyed speaking to church youth groups and delivering a straightforward message: Avoid temptations and pursue fully your occupational calling.
During the past two years, though, he says he may have "violated what I preach." He trained less than other 2004 Olympic hopefuls. While training in Austin, Tex., he spent about 18 hours a week training with UT swimmers, who were putting in 25. Mr. Davis couldn't commit to that higher number because, he says, his older body did not recover from intense training as well as it used to-but he also wanted to keep up his speaking schedule.
In December 2003, Mr. Davis and his wife bought a house in San Antonio with plans to move there only after the 2004 Olympics-but they could not resist moving in the day after Christmas. For Mr. Davis, the training became harder, as with only seven months to go before the Olympic trials he left regimented UT training and was on his own.
After a month of that Mr. Davis called up his old swimming coach, Mr. Watson, and asked if he would help him train; as Mr. Watson recalls, the swimmer said he needed accountability and "wasn't as consistent as he needed" to be. Soon, the pair was working around Mr. Davis's speaking schedule and training at a small community pool, and then a 50-meter pool.
Sometimes Mr. Davis swam alone, but curious swimmers seeking autographs often interrupted the sessions. Mr. Watson remembers one encounter: "This man comes to me and says, 'There are a lot of good swimmers here in San Antonio. There's Josh Davis and this guy you're coaching.' That took us completely out of our routine, but we had a good laugh."
The laughing stopped at the Olympic trials in July. In the 200-meter freestyle preliminaries, Mr. Davis raced like his old self, swimming the race in 1:49.65. With American phenom Michael Phelps swimming to his right, Mr. Davis even led the race for about 100 meters. But when Mr. Davis tried to repeat his performance just over seven hours later in the semifinals, his body failed him. Mr. Davis could only post a 1:51.57, good only for 16th place.
Mr. Davis says he saw it coming: "This one hurt badly, but I wasn't totally shocked. I've been struggling for two years now with not going really, really fast." Now he must decide how much he wants to change his lifestyle from the past decade. "I've gotten a lot of advice to hang it up and retire," Mr. Davis says. But nothing would change. He says he'd still go to the pool as often as possible. He'd still compete, and since the only real competition he can find is at the large national meets, he'd still go to those. "Retire? I don't know how to retire. . . . Yet I've got a pile of bills, and a family that wants me to be full of energy."
Late in July, as Mr. Davis pondered the next steps of his life, he spoke of how the Tour de France enchanted him. "I've been watching Lance Armstrong this week," Mr. Davis said as the American cyclist wrapped up his sixth consecutive Tour victory: "Up until a year ago, I wondered how he did it. He had all the business savvy, all the success, and the family." But it turned out this year that rock star Sheryl Crow, not Mr. Armstrong's ex-wife and children, was cheering on the cyclist in France: "You can't do it without Jesus."
Winning apart from God and family doesn't sit well with Mr. Davis: "I could be down on my luck and in transition and out of a job. But if I'm right with my God, my wife, and my kids, I'll be OK." Mr. Davis laughs as he realizes he has borrowed the line from the script he uses with children. He says talking about frustration always made him feel awkward: How can someone so successful speak about a life in transition? But he's no longer uncomfortable with the subject. Mr. Davis is living it.