Richard Charlesworth didn’t plan this.
He didn’t even plan on being a swimmer. But his aunt had a pool in her backyard, a rarity in Charlesworth’s native England, so he — along with his brother and sister — was “thrown” in the water at an early age. Inevitably, he went on to become one of the best young swimmers in the country.
But this? Swimming dozens of miles every week and as many as 1,650 yards in a single race?
“I don’t think I chose to be a distance swimmer. I think distance kind of chose me,” Charlesworth said. “I was never the guy who could get up and go fast for one length and then I would be done. I would always want to do another length and come back just as fast and then another length after that.”
To the casual observer, swimming lap after lap at high speed might seem like the opposite of a good time. Even Charlesworth admits distance swimmers are a peculiar breed.
“There’s something not quite right in our heads,,” he said. “But I do like the feeling at the end of a race. You feel like you’ve really accomplished something.”
Charlesworth’s competitive nature helped him become the 2008 British national champion in the 1,500-meter freestyle. That same year he represented Great Britain in the event at the Olympics, racing against the likes of Grant Hackett and Ous Mellouli.
While Charlesworth didn’t qualify for the final, finishing seventh in preliminaries, his performance in Beijing left one observer particularly impressed.
“After I finished my race, this guy approached me and said, ‘How would you like to go to college in Los Angeles?’” Charlesworth recalled.
It was Dave Salo, head coach of the USC swimming team. Charlesworth’s swimming stroke had caught his attention, and upon meeting him, Salo was pleasantly surprised by his “demeanor and maturity.”
“We kind of talked things over for a little bit,” Charlesworth said. But what Salo was proposing was, quite literally, foreign to a 19-year-old who had never even been to the United States before.
Charlesworth wasn’t sold — yet.
Less than 48 hours later, he watched as Mellouli out-touched Hackett at the wall to capture a gold medal and become the first man to defeat the Australian in the 1,500-meter freestyle in 11 years. Mellouli, a former swimmer at USC, still trains under Salo as a member of the Trojan Swim Club.
“That had some pretty heavy influence over me, the fact that I get to train with him now,” Charlesworth said of Mellouli’s connecting with Salo.
At the time, Charlesworth was also considering swimming for the University of Manchester. But the more he thought about it, the more appealing USC sounded.
“I’d just come from Australia and had the option between sunny California and not-quite-so-sunny Manchester,” he said. “The combination of [being] able to do the degree I wanted to do, train with the best people in the world, a lot better weather as well … It’s kind of a win-win situation for me.”
And so he made the long trek to Los Angeles at the beginning of 2009. In a daze, he stepped off the plane and onto American soil for the first time. Here he was, a stranger in a foreign land, thousands of miles away from anything he had ever known.
“In a sense I just jumped without looking,” Charlesworth said.
Indeed, it was something he hadn’t exactly planned for.
“It’s a kind of sense of adventure as well, just something different,” he added. “Just not to kind to settle with what everyone else is doing — try and do something different.”
His first practice at USC. Charlesworth remembers jumping into the pool and feeling “a little bit lost” as everyone started swimming a warm-up set he had never done before.
“It was a lot more intense than I was expecting,” he said.
But as the season progressed, Charlesworth began to adjust to the new regimen. His Olympic and international experience — he also competed for Great Britain at the 2009 world championships — started to pay off.
Salo noticed his new protégé was learning to swim fast at every practice.
“It took him a while to appreciate that, but he has done well,” Salo said.
It didn’t hurt, either, that his new teammates welcomed him as one of their own. Even before coming to USC, Charlesworth had exchanged Facebook messages with several of his future teammates. They have stayed friends since his arrival.
“Being from another country and not having family or a close support group around you, I think that really, really helped,” he said.
In this increasingly familiar environment, Charlesworth began to put up the results expected from a highly touted recruit. As the team’s preeminent distance swimmer, he took third in the 1,650-yard freestyle at the Pac-10 championships in March. Just a few weeks later at the NCAA championships, he placed ninth in the country, posting USC’s sixth-fastest time ever in the event.
Even faster times could be coming next season with a full year in Southern California under his belt.
But first, Charlesworth has turned his attention to an offseason of studying and swimming. In addition to taking summer school at USC for his civil engineering major, he will be training daily in preparation for the Commonwealth Games in India this October and, beyond that, the 2010-2011 collegiate season.
“There’s no letting up,” Charlesworth said, smiling.
This time, he’s got plans.