Beneath the glaring lights of the 17,500 seat CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska, in June, the eight American swimmers competing for a spot on Team USA in the 200-meter men's butterfly used the final moments before stepping onto their starting blocks to limber up. They shook out their triceps and stretched their wrists, each man anticipating the twice-down-and-back sprint they were about to endure.
Tom Shields, the son of United 737 Captain Tim Shields, stood behind the block in lane three, hands on his sides, pulling his elbows together in front of him to loosen his shoulders. The media likes to play up the 24-year-old's Southern California-cool image, and at that moment he looked every bit the part. Mouth parted in what could have been mistaken for a smile. Eyes scanning the pool before him and the crowd seated in the arena around him. A viewer would have been hard pressed to detect any sense of concern in the young man's body language.
Not the same happy-go-lucky kid
Shields talks like he stepped out of The Endless Summer and looks like every 20-something you see walking along Abbott Kinney Boulevard in board shorts and a pair of Vans on a sunny Saturday afternoon. At one time, he embraced the laid-back surfer persona, though he says it isn't representative of who he is now.
“I can appreciate that image, but it's totally fake," Shields said, amused at how he's perceived. After four years swimming for the University of California at Berkeley and more than three years competing in pro events in the U.S. and overseas, Tom felt the weight of expectations. “In 2012 [at the London Olympic trials], I had the talent but I didn't do the work. I was just happy to be there," he said. “This time was different – I worked hard to be competitive and put a lot of pressure on myself."
Of the men lined up in Omaha, only the top two would qualify for the Games. Shields took his place on the block, his torso hovering over his bent knees, deathly still, waiting for his shot at creating a legacy in the sport that has meant so much to him since childhood. His parents, Tim and Jolene, were both avid surfers who taught their children the finer points of staying buoyant in the Pacific Ocean. “One of my first memories is of my dad teaching me to swim," Tom said.
By age 7, Tom was part of a youth club near their home in Huntington Beach, California. Throughout his childhood, Tim and Jolene supported Tom's amateur pursuits, rousing him from bed well before dawn for morning practices and transporting him around the state and the country for meets. “We became that swimming family that we always said we would never be," Tim recalled.
The pool became Tom's sanctuary. In spite of excelling at team sports growing up, social anxiety made the solo aspect of swimming more favorable to him. “It's always been hard for me to get along and make new friends," he confided. “Even now, I get a lot of anxiety. When I get in the water, it resets me."
Tom credits his dad as one of the most influential people in his life. Not only did Tim have a cool job as a pilot, he was a successful water polo player in his youth, and was able to help Tom navigate the college recruitment process. Tom has flown United for years, thanks to his family connections and his involvement with Team USA, which United has sponsored for more than 35 years. Father and son occasionally cross paths in an airport somewhere during their travels, and in 2008, Tom got the ultimate in-flight surprise. “I was flying back from Sydney, Australia, with the junior team, and my dad walked up next to my seat on the plane and said 'Hey dude.' I had no idea that he was going to be our pilot."
Competing with a legend
When the buzzer sounded to start the 200-meter finals in Omaha, the American hopefuls dove in unison. In the lane next to him, the most decorated American Olympian of all time took an early lead, but Shields hung close by as the other six fell back. After the second turn he was vying for first. Shields came on strong halfway through the final lap and, for a moment, it looked like he might pull it off. Shields finished the race in second place, earning his first Olympic berth. In spite of the significance of the moment, Shields might have been one of the most disappointed swimmers in the pool.
“My swims need to be a lot faster," he said. “I've got to get back to my process, and coming in second was a good way for me to reconnect with the fact that there is more work that needs to be done."
Team USA began training together shortly after Omaha, and the members had but a few weeks to think about their respective processes before they all departed for Rio at the end of July. For his part, Shields focused on getting rest, working on his flexibility by doing yoga, watching race film and getting back in touch with his technique. While he was busy doing that, his friends and family were coming to terms with the more surreal aspects of having a world-class athlete in their midst.
Shields's image currently graces boxes of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and Corn Flakes and his legion of fans grow by the day. “It's weird," Tim admitted. “His face is on the cereal box and people are waiting in line after meets to get his autograph. This experience has been unbelievably fun for the family."