By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, March 2, 2018
When he started swimming as a 7-year-old – with easy access to the community pool next door to his house – David Heron focused on breast as his primary stroke.
But it didn’t take long for him to switch to distance freestyle – and eventually open water competition.
Can you imagine trying to swim a 10k race with a breaststroke?
“I was an athletic kid with a lot of endurance; I also loved swimming in little open water races we had hosted locally,” said Heron, a two-time (2015, 2017) World Championship competitor and two-time Open Water National Champion (2012 and 2017). “Once I was in high school, distance swimming became my primary focus.
“I enjoy longer swims because I am good at holding a pace for long periods of time. Whenever I do a really long swim or set, I try to focus on the set, but many times I will start thinking about things that just happened or things I have to do later on. I also always try to finish my swim or set at the fastest pace that I can.”
A 2017 graduate of the University of Tennessee, where he was an All-American, Heron never considered ending his swimming career at the end of his senior season.
After all, he had Open Water World Championships last summer and big-meet opportunities over the next two years – including Open Water Pan Pacific Championships this summer and Open Water World Championships next summer if he makes the teams.
And then there’s the big one – the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo – which happens to be the host site for Pan Pacs later this summer.
After finishing 10th in the 5k at the 2017 FINA World Championships and 6th in the same event two years earlier at Worlds (as well as 10th in the 25k), Heron said he’s ready to keep going over the next couple of seasons (if not longer) to see if he can attain his ultimate dream: competing at the Olympics.
“My first lap was a little rough, and I was somewhere around 30th (in the 5k), but I was really determined to see how many people I could pass on the second lap,” said Heron, who competed in his first 25k at last summer’s Worlds. “Again, the finish was tight and there were seven of us in a row coming into the finish.
“I believe that if I race that event (25k) again sometime, I will definitely perform better now knowing a little more about how to swim it and what to expect. The same goes for the 10k and 5k. Every time I swim them, I learn something new, whether it’s a form of strategy, the way I race it or just becoming familiar with what other top swimmers tend to usually do throughout their race.”
Like most competitive swimmers, Heron got his start in the pool but said he always had an affinity for the ocean. Growing up in Mission Viejo, Calif., and being so close to the beach, he was always outdoors – surfing, 4x4 off-roading, camping or biking.
His club team, the Mission Viejo Nadadores, would also go to swim in yearly open water races held at Seal Beach, where Heron would race between 500 yards up to a 3 miles.
Once he started doing well in distance swimming at the age of 15, he went to his first Open Water Nationals in 2011 to compete in the 5k and 10k events, and he’s gone every year since.
“My first World Cup event in Santos, Brazil, was a rough one for me,” said Heron, who earned his degree in Education and Sport Management and is currently working toward his Master’s degree in sport management. “The first half of the 10k was just me getting beat up by all the (other) swimmers and then the second half I swam by myself.
“But I really enjoy open water swimming because every race is different: cold, warm, rough, smooth, currents. There is strategy involved. You always have to be paying attention to what is going on in the race and where you are positioned. I also get to travel and race all over the world and make new friends from other countries.”
Over the course of his open water journey, Heron said he’s enjoyed some interesting experiences both good and not so good – including swimming through a group of jellyfish in Perth, Australia, that didn’t sting him but “hit your face and rolled down your body.”
One he’s particularly proud of came in the 5k at 2015 World Championships. He describes it as a two lap race, and the water that day was a little rough and had a small current moving perpendicular to the competitors.
“That’s one of the reasons why I like open water,” he said. “While most of the group of swimmers swam straight toward the finish – which was still about 1,000 meters away – I decided to swim off to the right a little, knowing that the current would push me back into line.
It paid off, and he was able to pass a lot of people and finish 6th in the world, only 3 seconds behind the champion.
With almost a full year of exclusive open water training behind him – he competed at 2012 and 2016 Olympic Trials in the 400 and 1500 freestyle events but isn’t planning on competing at Trials in 2020 – Heron said he is focused on making his first Pan Pacific team this summer in the 10k.
After that, he plans on continuing to train for Open Water Nationals next year with the goal to make the 2019 World team in the 10k and qualify for the next Olympic Team.
Beyond that, he’s unsure what’s on his life and swimming agenda, but with his Master’s degree completed this coming December, he plans to take stock of where he is with his swimming and then decide what to do.
He definitely knows he wants to work with sports – possibly as a personal trainer – once he decides he’s done all he wants to do in the water.
“I will for sure swim until 2020,” said Heron, who grew up admiring Alex Meyer, who gave him some advice on open water competition and eventually became his training mate at Tennessee, pushing him in every practice. “I would like to go to as many of the World Cup races as I can. After that, I will see how I’m still performing and decide whether I want to continue or not.
“I want to see the sport continue to grow and become more popular. Whenever I can, I like to promote open water and educate both younger and older swimmers that are new to the sport.”