By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, March 6, 2020Photo courtesy Aidan Medina
Growing up, David Curtiss didn’t have many role models in swimming who looked like him.
But when he saw Cullen Jones win gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, he immediately recognized that he could go on to experience Olympic glory in a sport with a lot more white faces than ones like his.
“I’d like to call myself colorblind, but it’s definitely easier to relate to somebody with the same skin color,” said Curtiss, a high school junior who recently committed to swim for North Carolina State, the same school as Jones. “Cullen is someone I have always looked up to and believed I could become like, especially since we swim the same event (50 freestyle).
“I met him once at a meet-and-greet and had a picture taken with him, which I still have, but we didn’t get a chance to talk. I’m hopeful that he can give me advice in the future when we get a chance to meet again.”
That opportunity might arise this summer when Curtiss heads to Omaha to compete in his first Olympic Trials.
As one of the fastest sprinters in the United States – he proved that last summer with a top-5 finish in the 50 free at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – Curtiss is excited for Trials.
Based on meets he competed in last summer – World Junior Championships and Phillips 66 Nationals – Curtiss believes he has the experience now to not allow the enormity and spectacle of Trials overwhelm or distract him.
“Those meets definitely prepared me for how Trials will be structured – with prelims, semis and finals – as well as competing against top swimmers, the large venue, loud fans, etc.,” said Curtiss, who won silver in the 50 free at last year’s FINA World Junior Championships and became the third American in history to go sub-22 at age 17-18.
“I’m really looking forward to competing at Trials. Competing is always something I’ve loved most about swimming, and there is going to be some tough competition in Omaha.”
Even as a child, Curtiss always felt at home in the water.
When he started swimming for his local YMCA as a 5-year-old, he immediately took to the wet stuff and found his love. He played baseball and basketball growing up, but swimming was always the sport he gravitated to and found his greatest reward.
Now, more than 12 years later, Curtiss, who was named to his first National Team this year, is on the verge of parlaying that love for the water into a potential Olympic berth.
But he knows it won’t be easy.
“I’ve always felt different in the water; I love the feel,” said Curtiss, who was adopted as a baby from an abusive household but maintains no contact with his biological parents and doesn’t plan to re-engage with them.
“The sprint events (he’s still hoping to qualify in the 100 free before Trials) are ultra-competitive and deep, so I know it’s going to take my best effort and swim to make sure I’m there contending at Trials.”
Curtiss said he naturally gravitated toward the sprint events as a youngster because he was a high-energy kid who always enjoyed the shorter distances instead of swimming four or eight laps.
He trains 200 free to keep his stamina strong, but sprinting is what he loves.
“I love having a straight line, no turns and not having to think in the water,” he said. “It’s all about muscle memory and going for it. There’s nothing like raw, pure speed to get your adrenalin going.”
And now, with Olympic Trials just over three months away, Curtiss said he is charged and ready to compete but the idea of him making the Olympic team – swimming and competing at that highest level – is still hard for him to fathom.
Making the National team has been a blessing and a top goal of his for the past 11 years.
So, if he doesn’t make the Olympic team this year, as a teenager who is still perfecting his craft, he won’t be disappointed.
“It would be great – a dream come true – to make the Olympic team this year, but I kind of wonder if I might appreciate it more and be better positioned in four years when I have more international competition and meets under my belt,” said Curtiss, who loves gaming, playing pick-up basketball and spending time with his girlfriend when he’s not swimming.
“At this point (in the season), I’m nowhere ready to contend to make the team, but I’ll be mentally and physically prepped to get down to business by June. But if it doesn’t happen this year, I know I’ll be in a better position four years from now to contend. I’m expecting a fun, highly competitive meet that I’ll never forget.”