Back in the Fast Lane

updated 11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/1997 01:00AM

AS HE BEGAN WORKING OUT FOR the '96 Olympics in Atlanta in October 1995, swimmer Chad Carvin remembers feeling "a little sluggish." Over the next two months his freestyle times—once America's best—got slower and slower. As his dream to join the Olympic team dissolved, Carvin sank into depression. On the afternoon of Dec. 12 the 6'2" University of Arizona senior sat alone in his Tucson apartment and swallowed sleeping pills "by the handful," he recalls. "Swimming was my life," Carvin adds. "And if I couldn't swim, I felt I had nothing to live for."

Today Carvin, 23, is back in the pool and—as he trains for the World Championships in Perth, Australia, next January—swimming faster than ever. Rushed to the University Medical Center in Tucson 15 hours after he had taken nearly 60 pills—a worried coach Frank Busch had sent a teammate to find him when he failed to show up for practice—Carvin had his stomach pumped. Two days later the cause of his fatigue was discovered. An EKG, part of a routine checkup, led doctors to diagnose a rare heart virus that had attacked Carvin's left ventricle, sapping half his heart's pumping power. Oxygen deprivation—not lack of motivation, as Carvin had feared—had torpedoed his swimming career.

It was, in its way, wonderful news. When Carvin's times had begun to slip, Busch thought he was overtraining and told him to get some rest. But when Carvin returned, so did the fatigue. "Even swimmers Chad could beat with one arm started beating him," says Busch. "We were scratching our heads." So were the university doctors, whose tests for mononucleosis and chronic fatigue syndrome came back negative. "I started dreading coming to the pool," says Carvin. "I felt like my whole life was going down the drain." Still, he kept up a good front. "He didn't tell me about the mental anguish he was going through," says his mother, Judie, 56, a homemaker.

Once the real problem was identified, Carvin was put on a drug therapy of ACE inhibitors that increase blood flow to the heart, and he was ordered to slow down to "a granny's pace," as his mother puts it, for 90 days. The enforced inactivity was tough on the lifelong athlete. He slept 15 hours a day, played video games and spent long hours walking a beach with his brother J.J., 24, near their Laguna Hills, Calif., home. "He was pretty bummed," says J.J. When Chad returned to classes in Tucson, he even got a disabled sticker for his car to cut down on walking distances.

But by last March his heart had returned to normal, and he was given the okay to resume training. Carvin was ambivalent about returning to competition. "If he couldn't go back to the level he was at," says J.J., "it wasn't worth it to him." Carvin's fears proved unfounded: At his first major meet, the U.S. Swimming Nationals in February, he won three freestyle races and the 400 individual medley.

Carvin showed his winning ways even as a tadpole growing up in Laguna Hills. Getting his first bike lesson at the age of 4, he begged his mother to let him ride without training wheels—and he didn't want her holding the seat either. Reluctantly she let go. "He went down the street, made a turn and waved. There was no stopping him," she recalls.

There was no stopping him in the water either. Though neither of his parents swam competitively—Joe, 56, is an electrical engineer—Chad started at age 6, and the pool soon became his passion. In 1992, as a high school senior, he tried out for the Olympics. Though he failed to make the team, he was recruited by the University of Arizona, where he was twice an NCAA champion. By 1995 he held the American record in the 1,000-yard freestyle.

Since graduating with a finance degree last spring, Carvin has been focused on the World Championships—but no longer to the exclusion of everything else. In fact he spent two whole weeks last August away from the pool—mostly surfing with his brother and playing classical guitar. He has even renewed an early interest in pottery. "Before, I was trying to fit life into swimming," he says, smiling. "But now I'm trying to fit swimming into life."

KEN BAKER in Laguna Hills

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