By Kevin Redding
When he was 9 years old, recent Rocky Point High School graduate Christopher O’Shea was encouraged by a friend to try out for the Three Village Swim Club team in East Setauket.
His mom was surprised at his newfound interest in swimming, because, as she recalled, he was deathly afraid of the water not too long before.
“We could never figure out why he hated the water so much, he just always cried,” Kelley O’Shea said.
Whatever it was disappeared quickly.
“He tried out for the team and made it,” she said. “He really loved it. And the rest, as they say, is history. Now it’s his life.”
O’Shea, 18, a two-time All-America swimmer who graduated in the spring, was one of just two Suffolk County high school competitors in the 2017 U.S. Open Swimming Championships at the Nassau County Aquatic Center in Eisenhower Park, East Meadow, held Aug. 2-6.
He and Shoreham-Wading River junior Jason Louser joined the best swimmers in the country, including 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte, in the largest single-tank pool in the country for the biggest event of their athletic careers.
O’Shea, who swam the 100-meter long course butterfly Friday and 100 long course backstroke Saturday, placed 68th with a time of 57.38 seconds and 58th in 58.71, respectively. Lochte placed fifth in the same backstroke event.
The Rocky Point grad, who considered this event “the baby steps” toward the Olympic trials, said he couldn’t believe his luck upon entering the massive Nassau facility.
“Oh, I was completely ecstatic,” O’Shea said of the experience. “Typically when you go to a swim meet you’re with people on your level, but when you’re going to this worldwide meet and there’s not only the French national team and a bunch of guys from Australia, but then Ryan Lochte and other Olympians, it was surreal. I didn’t believe I would ever be able to see these people in person let alone swim in the same pool as them.”
He had previously qualified to compete, based on his time, in the Senior Metropolitan Long Course Summer Championships July 22.
Louser, 16, who represented his Long Island Aquatic Club in Garden City, competed in the 200 long course breaststroke, 100 long course breaststroke, 400 long course individual medley and 200 long course individual medley during the meet. He echoed O’Shea’s awe, especially when it came to seeing Lochte.
“The first time I saw him was astonishing,” Louser said. “I was just thinking, ‘I’m swimming in the same meet as him and this is kind of crazy.’ Everyone’s crazy good at the U.S. Open and it’s also very intimidating because there are college coaches around.”
O’Shea was also nervous as he warmed up for his first race, competing alongside top swimmers from around the country.
“Being such a small fish in a giant pond, it was a lot to take in,” he said. “The aquatic center was covered with posters and flags and signs, so it made it all the more better. It made it seem all the more official that we were actually there. It was intense and I had to get into a mental focus.”
But O’Shea has gone above and beyond to earn his spot among the best.
He won the 100 butterfly at the state championship and placed second in the 100 backstroke in March, and won the county championship in the backstroke and 200 freestyle last winter.
Rounding out his ninth and final year on the Three Village Swim Club team, as he’ll be attending Eastern Michigan University on a swimming scholarship this fall, O’Shea has maintained a rigorous schedule to prepare for the U.S. Open.
This summer, the daily process has been waking up at 5 a.m., eating breakfast and driving 25 minutes to train at the Aquatic Center for two hours from 6 to 8 a.m. After practice, he’d go to work at the summer buddies program at the North Shore Youth Council and give private half-hour swimming lessons to kids between the ages 4 and 12 at home. Then, he heads to the gym, go back home, and repeat.
“This is a sport you can’t give up on because once you do, it’s over,” he said. “A lot of people do give up and I don’t want to be one of those people. That keeps pushing me along.”
Both O’Shea and Louser beat the odds in becoming successful. Neither Rocky Point nor Shoreham school districts have a pool or official swim team, so the two had to work extra hard and go the distance to practice.
Despite an apparent lack of interest, O’Shea said the tide is starting to turn. Some of his friends came out to watch him compete over the weekend, which was a big deal to him as they’d never come to a meet before. Even younger members of the Three Village Swim Club arrived with signs and cheers.
“Now that they’ve heard that Chris is swimming with Ryan Lochte, they’re thinking, ‘Wow, he must be really good,’” his mom said, laughing. “It’s pretty cool to see how everyone’s changing their attitude, and I couldn’t ask for anything better in a son. We are continually surprised and thrilled with his achievements.”
Reflecting on how far he’s come, O’Shea said, “When I started swimming it was just a ‘Let’s see how it goes’ kind of thing, and now a few years down the line, I find myself competing against the world’s best … it’s really something else.”