In between dreams

Junior standout Tom Shields once dreamed of swimming for USC. But his bigger dream was winning a team title — which he did last season with Cal.

Giana Tansman/File

The rain at Spieker Aquatics Center is relentless. As the Cal men’s swim team finishes its practice, the players and coaches stream towards the exit. After over an hour in the pool, the swimmers clearly prefer pool water to rainwater. It’s odd how water from the sky affects these swimmers differently than the water in the pool. Nobody wants to get more wet.

If Tom Shields is uncomfortable in this weather, he doesn’t act it. As a photographer snaps pictures of his Speedo-clad body, he doesn’t flinch. Goggles on his forehead, cap concealing his curly blond hair, the junior flashes a smile in spite of the surly weather. This rain is nothing to complain about.
But the outside air is harsh on the skin of someone stepping out of an 80-degree pool. As Shields steps out of the water one last time, one of the best swimmers in Cal history crosses his arms and shivers. You can’t blame him.

The pool, at Berkeley, is where he belongs.

Thomas Allen Shields gives off a distinct SoCal vibe. His anecdotes often begin with like: “I was like,” “It was like,” “He was like.” Shields learned to swim at age 10 so he could become a lifeguard in his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif. Since then, Shields has been defined by water. When he wasn’t adding to his resume — one that includes state championships from each year of high school — he was surfing with his buddies. If swimming defined Shields’ adolescence, surfing came a close second.

“I like to surf now, too,” he says, laughing. “It’s just harder now.”

Because Berkeley is not Huntington Beach. It’s not a place to go bodysurfing. There are no beaches to escape to, but he was willing to make that sacrifice to come to Cal, which has become his dream school. But it hasn’t always been that way. Shields has always had dreams; he just has a habit of changing them.

When he was a junior in high school, USC was his dream school. It seemed a perfect fit. The “laid-back surfer dude,” as Cal coach David Durden calls him, verbally committed to USC — the “zion” of SoCal swimming, according to Shields. His club swim coach, Dave Salo, was Southern Cal’s head coach. It just made sense for Shields to stay in SoCal.

Looking back, Durden calls Shields’ commitment “a moment of youth.” When Shields ran into Durden at the 2008 Olympic Trials, he was beginning to change his mind about his commitment.

The more Shields learned about Durden’s program, the more he liked it.

“I just distinctly remember him saying, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know … I’m not committed to USC. I’m still keeping my options open,’” Durden says.

What really stood out to Shields was the idea of winning an NCAA team championship. Cal hadn’t won a team title since 1980, but Shields liked the direction the Bears were heading in. Winning a team title was another dream of his, one he’d had since he was a 12-year-old winning his first competitive race.

It came down to a choice between two dreams: swimming at USC or swimming for an NCAA team championship.

“I really wanted to win a team title,” he says. “And I really wanted to be part of a program that could put me, that could put us as a team, in that situation. And I really believe Durden had that. And that’s why I came here.”

When faced with a choice between his goals, Shields redefined his dream; he chose Cal.

Two and a half years after coming to Berkeley, Shields has too many awards to count. He’s won Pac-10 titles (nine of them), individual NCAA crowns (two of them) and NCAA relay titles (four of them). But it was last March’s team title that Shields considers his crowning achievement as a Bear.

“The team title’s like that one time we have that expression of the ‘us-ness’ and the ‘we-ness,’” Shields says, laughing. “I know that’s not English, but I think that’s something everyone can understand.”

Unlike other college swim programs, Cal is not just a compilation of individuals racing for their own self-interest. It’s a team. Whereas other programs may aim to develop swimmers individually, Shields was able to learn from the players around him. Two years ago, older members of the team, like graduated senior Graeme Moore, took Shields under their wings. Now Shields is passing on the knowledge he acquired just a couple years before.

“He definitely leads our team through example,” Durden says. “In terms of work ethic, in terms of racing, in terms of race-mentality, he’s learning how to do the little things.

“And he’s continuing to develop that.”

It’s a cycle, on which Shields has come full circle, from student to teacher. Swimming is a sport comprised of individuals, but at Cal, he found a team.

One would expect a swimmer of Shields’ caliber to be motivated by Olympic medals. After all, five of his teammates swam in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, including graduated-senior Nathan Adrian, who won a gold for Team USA in the 400 free relay. Shields has won that event at NCAAs each of the last two years. But if that success isn’t parlayed into an Olympic medal, that’s fine. “Whatever,” he says.

“I had a dream to be an Olympic athlete,” Shields says. “But as I’ve traveled internationally on the junior teams and with the world team, it isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. It isn’t fun … It’s just not my slice of pie. It’s just not me.”

It’s not that Shields lacks the talent to win Olympic medals. After all, Durden says, a lot of swimmers can win gold medals,“and I would include Tom in that class of athletes.”

“But,” Durden adds, “he doesn’t have to win a gold medal to validate himself as a great swimmer.”

As the conversation turns to the Olympics, Shields introspects. He isn’t about to discredit the Olympic dream; it’s just not for him.

“That’s not what I’m going to dream about anymore,” he says.

Even in the pouring rain, Spieker Aquatics Center is where Shields’ dream is happening. Swimming at Cal isn’t just a stepping stone to a higher plateau. It’s his domain. It’s why the SoCal dude doesn’t seem out of place in Bay Area weather, why he’s comfortable posing for photos in the pouring rain.

Tom Shields isn’t just aspiring to live the dream. As a member of the Cal men’s swim team, he is living it.