By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Joe Pascale has fought MMA, grew a humongous beard he named “Papa Legba,” and competed at the Olympic Trials (sans beard.) He competed in the 50 and 100 freestyles. Now, Joe is back home, contemplating his post-Trials life. He’s preparing a friend for an MMA fight and itching to get back into the water again. You can read his pre-Trials update here.
So how were your races?
I went out guns blazing. Especially in the 100. I tried to split it the fastest I’d ever split before. I tried to make it back with a 1.5 drop off. I went out in a 24.0. When I came back, I was a 52.1. Which was extremely disappointing to me. After that 75m mark, it felt like someone injected cement into my legs and arms. I was trying to keep it together and keep the momentum going, but that last 25m, I just went dead. I hit that :52 which, you know, was extremely irritating. Those times I went in season with the beard. Same thing with the 50m freestyle. I felt great. I felt ready. But right when I hit that water, all the training, all the preparation went out the window. The wheels started spinning. It’s a problem I’ve always had. Ask any coach, “He’ll just spin his wheels until he gets tired.” All the training I had done before, if we’re doing long course, max 30 strokes per 50. Just to make sure I wouldn’t spin my wheels. But it didn’t come out as planned. I was really hoping to see if I could hit a :49.
Do you still think you could?
I think I could. I’m not going to stop. I’m definitely not going to stop swimming.
So is that time -- breaking :50 -- your time goal?
Yeah. Just as long as I’m faster, I’m happy. I took a couple steps back at Trials. I wish that could have happened at a different venue, like Nationals. But I gotta take it how it comes.
Take me through the race. What were your thoughts before, during, and immediately after?
Prepping before was nothing different. It was the same exact rituals and preparations and getting that “tunnel vision” before the race, as you step up to the blocks and look up to your lane. I’ll tell myself, “Screw it. You’re going to get that time. No questions asked.” I just kept on repeating that over and over in my head. It always worked before. Everyone has a bad race. But that was one meet where it just didn’t click, where my body wasn’t listening to my mind. That was the first time I’d been to a big event, I think it messed with me a little bit. I had a feeling of being a “noob.” I’d never experienced something that big before.
You had talked about the vibe on pool deck…
The mean muggin’ -- that goes on in every pool deck everywhere. I can’t explain it. All I can say is that it was a different energy at that pool deck than I’ve experienced anywhere else. It was different. Whether it was good or bad, it was just different.
What was your reaction after your swim?
I felt like I stunk up the joint. I was like, “What are you doing, dude?” The first thought was, “Why did you shave the beard? You might as well have raced at Trials with the beard on.” It was definitely disappointed. Very, very disappointing. The main event I wanted to do well in was the 100. I tried to put in max effort. Getting nervous and hyped up to get the job done, it ended up backfiring in my face. I just went out guns blazing and used up all my energy and oxygen on that back 25. The coach showed me the video, and you could just tell the last 25 everything fell apart. It wasn’t a smart race on my part.
Have you had time to reflect on your journey thus far?
Yeah. I think it was awesome. I feel a bit of a disappointment because there was so much put into this, to not really come out with something positive. But overall, it was an awesome ride. I hope my name got out there well enough and got out there in a positive way.
Did anyone recognize you without the beard?
You know, a lot of people said that on Twitter they were going to come up to me and say what’s up, but no one ever did. I don’t know if they took one look at me and said, “That’s not the guy, he doesn’t have the beard.” Just the people I know, Shanteau… A few other people did. When I shaved, I was walking through the airport, one of the Curl-Burke coaches walked right past me because he didn’t recognize me.
How did Papa Legba react to your swim?
Not good man. Not good. The rattling of the chicken bones were very, very faint. The magic was lost, man. After that 100, all the energy was sucked out of me. That was my main focal point. He still is in my bag. I have to do a proper burial of him. I’ll incinerate him. I’ll do a nice Viking thing for him. Set him out in a dinghy.
Are you growing a beard now?
Yeah. You know, mixed reviews. A lot of that is family. They’re like, “Oh my god, you’re not doing this again.” To be honest with you, I like the beard. I like the beard a lot. A lot of people have been like, “Are you getting the Papa Legba Jr. going?” I don’t know. I have to see if enough people want him back.
What are your future plans for swimming?
Try to find work. Try to find that job that will allow me to keep training. Right now, I’m taking the summer to relax and hang out and figure that out. Wherever the trade winds blow me, that’s the direction I’ll take. It’ll definitely be with swimming or keeping athletic.
Ever thought about being a full time coach?
I’ve thought about it. I’d like to. But usually the times conflict with each other.
Training and coaching?
Any more thoughts for MMA?
I’m very involved with it now. I was with some of the competition team guys the other day. It was the first time I’d gotten back and done full-blown MMA sparring. We put on MMA gloves but they are extra padded so you can punch each other, but not hurt each other. You do full blown grappling, Muay Thai full cage fighting, but with the sparring gloves. The coach running the practices were like, “You look sharp for not doing it the past 8 months.” I didn’t do anything too serious over that 8-month period. No going live on the mats, in case I got put in the hold or taken down and popped my shoulder out and pulled something. But to go 100% and spar with someone, everyone said I looked really, really sharp. I might have to pick up something before getting back into swim practice.
What are the similarities?
It’s very endurance driven. It’s very interval based. But those are the only similarities. With swimming, you have to keep up with the pace, and you do too with MMA, only the pace changes where you can be dancing around for a minute and the next minute you could be throwing bombs, then back to dancing around. There are different levels, standing up, down at the ground, trying to get an ankle lock.
What’s the one thing you’re taking from this journey?
No regrets, whatsoever. I worked hard. I worked my butt off. But looking back, even though I went slow times at Trials, the end result wasn’t what I wanted, but I can look back and say, “At least you busted your butt to get to where you wanted to be.” When I first got back into swimming, I wanted to go to the Olympic Trials. Making best times was secondary. I wanted to get to Trials and being able to experience that. Hard work pays off. With future endeavors: work hard, dream big.
Any advice for kids out there?
To the little ones, I would say, if people tell you what you’re chasing is a pipe dream, then keep chasing it, because it makes life that much more exciting. With all the preparation for Trials, it’s made it so much more exciting, so worthwhile that people are interested in what I’m doing. People telling you it’s a pipe dream? Say alright, then keep dreaming it, and get after it.
If you have swim stories to share, email Trials.Tribulations.firstname.lastname@example.org or message Mike Gustafson on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.