By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
When we last talked with Curl Burke’s Joe Pascale, he explained to us his unusual route back to the competition pool. After swimming for Auburn, Joe had a brief foray with Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Now, the 6’6” swimmer is training and chasing a dream to compete at the Olympic Trials. He’s got a massive beard that he competes with, which he’s named Papa Legba.
As we approach the Trials, we’ll begin to catch up with some of the subjects we’ve covered before in “Trials and Tribulations” to see how they’re doing, how training is going, and the progression they’ve made. If you have any swim stories you’d like to share, please email me at Trials.Tribulations.firstname.lastname@example.org.
How is Papa Legba?
He’s doing well. I had to – you’re going to get a kick out of this – I had to get a haircut because my sister is getting married next week. I walked in and got a little “fade-action” on the beard. I look like something out of Leonidas. I got the sideburns trimmed. But under the chin – it looks like an upside-down flattop. So it looks good. It’s going to look real nice.
Was that criteria for the wedding?
Well, my sisters in-law, they know what I’m doing. So right off the bat, they think I’m a weird-o, but they like it. They support it. I’m in the wedding. They said, “Please don’t get rid of it.” But out of respect, maybe a little clean-up job. I don’t want to look completely homeless. There are going to be people at the wedding who have no idea who I am, and will probably be like, “Who is this kid?”
Is Papa Legba nervous about his upcoming shave?
We’ve talked about it. It’s a necessary evil. It has to be done. He’ll be at Trials though. He’ll be sitting in the stands watching. No worries.
I guess we should also ask how your swimming is going?
It’s going really well. Definitely – I changed up my whole weight room and Thai boxing regime. I’m shedding weight – I’m under 230. I’m getting my strength over my body weight ratio. And then in the water it’s going fantastic.
Have you been in meets?
I had golfer’s elbow. So tendonitis in my elbow put a limit on putting torque on my swimming. I did a couple of 50s at sectionals and senior champs at George Mason in Virginia. I’ll be in Richmond on May 8th rather than doing UltraSwim. I can save money, since money is tight. Then it’s game time.
Are you excited for Trials?
Absolutely. I’m pumped. And I definitely feel very confident about smashing my previous 100 free time. It’s a 50.6. I feel confident that I’ll get to 49s. That’s my only goal – to beat my time from last year.
You told me that you have some superstitions, that you’re one of the most superstitious swimmers out there. What are some of them?
Well, it’s usually the classic ones. Up here in the Northern Virginia area, we have a big fox population. The road that I take to practice is a big long country winding road. Seeing a fox is like seeing a black cat, but if a fox crosses my path, I take that as a good sign. I find that when a fox crosses my path, something good will happen soon.
Has that happened?
Yeah. I’ve gotten this far.
Before races – Do you have any pre-meet rituals?
I meditate for five minutes by myself with a bell chime. Like a Buddhist bell thing. It just repeats itself. There’s too much noise before a race. I do it in my hotel room or before I head out for a meet. If I don’t do that, it messes up my whole qi. I can’t even focus right at the meet.
Do you take a Zen Buddhist approach to swimming?
The approach of clearing your mind. It’s totally true. If you think too much, you end up messing up. You shouldn’t think. My philosophy is, you think when you practice. But when it comes to meet time, you don’t think, you just do. Your body should have that muscle memory built in from practice. I can’t listen to music, either. Not my style.
How do you get fired up before a sprinting race?
Noises. The meet in general. I soak that in. Music for some reason – I’ve tried it, and I’m totally turned off by the idea of music. The only time I’ll listen to music is in the weight room. The only time I listen to heavy stuff is in the weight room. I find that listening to heavy rock music before a race, you waste your adrenaline. I don’t like to get amped up before I’m behind the blocks and ready to push it. I like to conserve my energy for the moment. Two heats before, I kick in the nervousness. I allow the adrenaline to pump and take over. When I'm at a swim meet, I like to be social and talk to many people, because I don't like to think about the race until I'm actually behind the blocks.
Is it going to be hard to contain that energy at the Trials?
Yeah. This will be my first go. I’ve never swam any event like this ever. I’ve never been part of anything like this. It’ll be brand new. But with all my weird tics and my schedule that I keep, I’ll be able to get through it. I’ll be calm before the storm hits.
You’ve gotten some feedback from the swim community about your beard since we ran the article – has it surprised you?
Yeah. Especially everyone locally. A lot of people have approached me. At meets, people talk to me. They ask me about the beard. So, I can definitely tell some of the kids that read up on it, I had buddies from the Midwest and out west call me up. “I read the article and shared it with the kids.” I think that’s fun. It’s really awesome.
You’re always one of the more fun interviews in swimming. You remind me of Gary Hall Jr. in your individualistic and fun approach. How important do you think it is to have fun with the sport?
What’s the point of doing something if you’re not having fun? When you’re not having fun with it, then it becomes like a job. Once it becomes a job, you go through the day, the repetitions, “Well, I’m going to do this just to get through it.” I don’t know about you, but that just stinks. You have to think outside the box. Make things different, so you enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you might as well step away from it. Which, I think that’s a sad day. I’m crossing my fingers that day doesn’t come for me. It did once before, but thank God the flame got reignited.