It’s Sunday morning, and Josh Prenot has just arrived to do his water workouts. He pushes through the rustic wooden doors to enter Spieker Aquatics Complex and hurries toward the calm water. The pool is sparsely filled, save for a few recreational swimmers. His teammates and coaches are nowhere to be found — for now, it’s just Prenot and the water.
Prenot is the only member of the Cal men’s swim team that does his water workouts Sunday. For everyone else, Sunday is the one day off, a brief respite from a physically gruelling week of training.
Because of physics lab, Prenot isn’t able to attend practice Wednesdays with the rest of the team. So he’s resolved to make up the missed time by coming in every Sunday to finish his remaining workouts.
“It’s not easy to take the major that he’s taking, to swim in this competitive collegiate environment and to be top 10 in the world in his events,” says Cal head coach David Durden. “That’s really, really difficult and I’d be hard pressed to find another athlete in the world that’s doing what he’s doing.”
The road to collegiate swimming began early for Prenot, who gravitated toward the sport at an early age. But it wasn’t always clear whether he would pursue it. At age 13, Prenot was heavily involved in both baseball and swimming. But if we wanted to excel at either, his father pointed out, he would need to choose between the two.
Forced to prioritize, Prenot looked toward the option with which he could envision himself having the most success. In swimming, Prenot had a clear goal: each year, he strove to make USA Swimming’s annual list of top performers for his age group. While he enjoyed being competitive in baseball, he didn’t have the same level of ambition, so he ultimately decided to give it up.
After Prenot made his choice, his parents supported him wholeheartedly, but they weren’t typical swim parents. Their relative inexperience with the sport meant that Prenot had the freedom to compete without the worry of his parents watching over everything he did.
“You’ll see swim parents with stopwatches on the pool deck, trying to influence and micromanage what their kids are doing,” Prenot says. “When I was growing up doing swimming, my parents knew nothing about it, and that was great because they were there supporting, encouraging — not worrying about it.”
Prenot’s swimming career began to thrive during his time at Santa Maria Swim Club under the tutelage of head coach Mike Ashmore. While Prenot never swam for a high school, he developed rapidly at Santa Maria from ages 13 to 18. During this time, he competed on some of the biggest stages imaginable, both nationally and internationally. His journey through the competitive swimming circuit led him to cross paths with another one of the nation’s top young swimmers — Jacob Pebley, Prenot’s roommate and Cal teammate — at the 2010 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.
“You’re not scared to race him, but the second he dives in the water, you’re freaking out,” Pebley recalls of his first impression of Prenot.
After spending time together at that meet, Pebley and Prenot began talking outside of swim competitions and quickly realized that they shared visions of what they wanted in and out of the pool.
“I think we realized we both have similar expectations,” Pebley says. “We just happened to have that same drive with what we want to accomplish in the water, so how we handle our business out of the water is very similar. It made living together pretty easy.”
In the midst of all of his success in swimming, Prenot found himself relatively unchallenged by his school curriculum. After being homeschooled in middle school, Prenot was able to make with ease the transition to taking independent-study charter school classes and community college classes for high school credit.
Prenot decided to take a year off after high school in order to prepare for what he views as the “pinnacle of club swimming” — the Olympic Trials. Prenot trained intensely with Ashmore, but nothing could prepare him for the spectacle the trials were.
The trials were held in Omaha, Nebraska, at the Qwest Center (now called CenturyLink Center), a basketball arena in which a temporary indoor pool was constructed on the court for the occasion. By the end of the eight-day ordeal, a field of nearly 2,000 hopefuls dwindled down to a total of 47 swimmers who were chosen for the team.
Though he advanced to the semifinals, Prenot was up against the likes of seasoned Olympic swimmers, such as Michael Phelps, and was ultimately not be selected .
“He didn’t have a great Olympic Trials, and some of that was a little bit out of his control, but I think that experience at the Olympic Trials has carried over into his collegiate experience here,” Durden says. “How he raced at Nationals in 2014, how he raced at World University Games in 2015 has been a direct benefit of what he’s done.”
Prenot is a senior now, with a championship title and two second-place finishes in the NCAAs under his belt. To him, no stage is higher pressure than an NCAA championship meet, and with more international experience in hand, he’s much better equipped to perform to his abilities at the 2016 Olympic Trials. The 2016 Olympics are the next big goal in his swimming career, and the trials represent a chance at redemption.
Outside the pool, Prenot faces a different but equally engaging challenge: physics at UC Berkeley. The intensity of upper-division physics classes has started to reach Prenot, and in order to devote an appropriate amount of time to his preparation for the Olympic Trials, he will be applying for a reduced course load in the spring.
Prenot, who entered UC Berkeley undeclared, had the option in his first two years to explore other, less arduous majors. Instead, he remained steadfast in studying physics. In retrospect, he contemplates what his college experience would have been like had he chosen a less time-consuming major.
“Looking back at it now, I think it would have been more pragmatic to do that,” Prenot says. “But I also think a bunch of people told me, ‘Oh, dude, you’re totally going to switch majors,’ so the stubborn part of me took over.”
Still, Prenot hasn’t let physics detract from his swimming. In fact, it may have had some unexpected positive results.
“When he tells me about changes in his stroke, he uses terminology I assume is physics related and what he learned in his classes,” Pebley says. “Some of it’s common sense, but a lot of it’s probably been brought up in his mind from learning certain things in school.”
Post-athletics, Prenot doesn’t want to limit his opportunities to fields related only to solving physics problems. It’s the challenge of problem solving in general that appeals to him. Yet he can’t help but feel enamored by physics.
“Just really, really interesting concepts — kind of eye-opening about how the world really works,” Prenot says. “Those are the kind of classes that I really love, just the study of how literally everything in the universe works.”
While the joint pressure of Olympic Trials and finishing up major requirements looms over him, Prenot remains focused on the present. For him, it’s about taking each responsibility one at a time to get through this taxing semester.
“He’s a pretty even-keeled guy. He doesn’t let a lot affect him,” Pebley says. “I feel like a lot of people come out of college a lot different than they were going in. He’s done really well in school and in the pool, but as a person, I feel like he’s pretty similar.”
To everyone who knows him, Prenot is still the same person, the one who carries a serious approach to everything he does. He’s the same person who chose to swim despite being sick all throughout the NCAA championships his junior year. And he still has the same dry sense of humor.
“He is such a quality person, and then he happens to be a really great swimmer as well,” Durden says.