Ward Keeps Climbing to the Top : Former Sonora Swimmer Trying to Make Canadian Team

Times Staff Writer

Marian Ward has this theory about her son, Darren: “I think his life is a series of ladders. You start at the bottom and get to the top. That’s the way I look at it.”

And why not? Ward spends a lot of time propped up on the top rung, looking down on everyone else struggling up. He went from a 10-year-old swimmer who wasn’t sure if his strokes were right to setting national age group records for 13-14-year-olds in the 200-meter individual medley and 200-meter freestyle.

A year later, he found himself competing in the senior nationals, a new ladder that began after the old one topped out.


He didn’t stay at the bottom long.

As a 16-year-old at Sonora High School, he set Southern Section records in the 200-yard individual medley and 100-yard freestyle. At the Southern Section championships last May, he set a national high school record in the 200-yard individual medley (1 minute 48.83 seconds) and was ranked ninth in the country.

He accomplished all this only to find himself facing two new ladders.

Ward, whose parents are Canadians who work in the United States, has citizenship in both countries. He went to Calgary three weeks ago because he felt he had a much better chance of making the Canadian national team than the U.S. team. He already had traveled to Europe in May with the Canadian team, swimming in Monte Carlo and Rome. Even though he was ill during the meets, he finished in the top eight in three events.

Ward, 18, begins competing in Calgary, Alberta, today in the Esso Cup, Canada’s summer long course nationals, beginning his quest for a spot on Canada’s national team and trying to compete at an even higher level.

The top two finishers in each event will travel to Australia for the Pan Pacific Games. The third- and fourth-place finishers will compete at the Pan American Games at Indianapolis.

Ward will be competing in the 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley. The 200 individual medley, his best event, will be the one he emphasizes. Alex Baumann, another Canadian swimmer and potential teammate, holds the world record (2:01.42). Ward’s best time is about four seconds slower.

“I’ve been swimming great,” Ward said from Calgary this week. “I’m confident that I’ll go even faster, which probably wouldn’t have happened if I stayed down there.


“I think a lot of it is attitude. I was getting tired of the same old situation, working out with the same people. I needed a change, I think.”

But Ward also discovered competition in practice, something he rarely experienced with the Fullerton Aquatic Swim Team. Only 10 of the 35 members of Ward’s club were male. None could push him in practice.

“In Fullerton, it’s a smaller club (than Calgary). There are not as many national team members and it’s not as team-oriented,” Ward said. “Up here it’s very team-oriented and that helps me. I feel I’m swimming better than ever.”

Bud McAllister, the Fullerton coach, was not surprised that Ward had improved. For the first time, he says, Ward is practicing daily with swimmers his own age who can beat him.

“Some swimmers swim better from up front, others from behind,” McAllister said. “Darren always swims better from behind, it’s the pressure.

“His best workouts were when Matt Nance, a friend of his who swims for Stanford, came down. Those were by far his best workouts. They really pushed each other in practice. He would just push himself to a higher level.”


Which is what he’s doing daily in Canada. University of Calgary club Coach Deryk Snelling, who has coached the last four Canadian Olympic teams, says Ward not only has raw talent but seems to swim even better in races.

“I think realistically he can make the Pan Pacific Games,” Snelling said. “But then again he’ll have to go a little better than he has been. It could be awfully close.”

If he’s successful, Ward plans to stay in Canada until August. He will then return to California and, in the fall, swim for UCLA and decide whether he wants to devote all his time training for a spot on the Olympic team.

“Some work definitely needs to be put in,” Snelling said. “I think he has to see if he wants to work to be the very best. The decision to go from being very good to great is a big step.”

Another ladder.