Coach Susan Lord was more than a bit concerned when she heard that the standout swimmer on her Laguna Hills boys' team, Steve Poling, wouldn't be competing for the Hawks this spring.
"He's our best swimmer and he is one of the big reasons why we won the [Southern Section Division II] title last year," Lord said. "I mean, he broke a record last year, so we needed him bad."
Poling's record swim came in the 100-yard breaststroke. His first-place time of 56.37 seconds was not only a section Division II finals record but also the fastest time recorded in the section during the 1997 season.
So why wouldn't Poling, considered the county's best in the breaststroke, not come back for his senior year?
"I just wanted to train with my club and get ready for Nationals [April 1-5]," he said. "And because there are so many meets in the season, I thought [high school swimming] might interfere with my training."
Lord, however, assured him she could work around his Irvine Novaquatics schedule and would not demand he swim in every Laguna Hills meet.
After a little coaxing from some of his high school teammates, Poling rejoined the team.
"Look, I wanted to swim with my high school," he said. "It's a lot of fun. There's a whole different group of friends I have on the high school team. So it was a relief that I could swim with my high school."
Poling has achieved a Senior National-qualifying time in the 100-meter breaststroke and is close to a time that would qualify him for the Olympic trials. But he is the last person to wear his accomplishments on his sleeve. In fact, at times, he is almost blase about his swimming career.
It's that take-it-or-leave-it attitude that drives those around him crazy, particularly his Novaquatics club coach, Dave Salo.
"When Steve first came here a couple of years ago, his goal was to break a minute in the 100 breaststroke," Salo said. "But once he did that, it required him to set new goals. And that's something he has trouble with. As a focused swimmer, Steve is energetic and motivated. But when he's not . . . "
When he's not, he has to find motivation wherever he can. Like the time he put on a girls' swimming suit and ran through the girls' locker room at Golden West College at a club meet.
Poling said he was punished for that particular prank, and said there was even some discussion about kicking him off the team. But he weathered the storm and remained with the team.
"I was told that I was a representative of the Novas, and what I do reflects on the entire team," Poling said. "I could understand that. It was a stupid thing to do."
Said Salo: "Steve has tremendous potential. I think he could be one of our top collegiate swimmers. But in many ways he reminds me of a sleeping bear. When he's awake, watch out. But when he's asleep . . . well, sometimes I think he would rather be lying out on some beach in Hawaii, surfing and skateboarding all day long."
Poling says he can understand Salo's frustration, but insists he does have goals. But not all of them can be accomplished in a pool.
"If I could, I'd be surfing every day," said Poling, adding that his home break is Salt Creek in Dana Point. "Surfing takes your mind off all your problems. It takes all the pressure off."
He also enjoys skateboarding.
"It's a long board, so it rides like a surf board," Poling said. "So when it's flat [on the ocean], I'm on my skateboard."
But judging by Poling's recent SAT results, his mind doesn't appear to be entirely with the waves or in the pool.
"I got a perfect score [1,600]," he said, laughing. "I was a little surprised. I knew I would do well in the math, but the verbal portion of the test surprised me."
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PRESEASON TOP 10
Irvine: A strong freshman class
Mission Viejo: Seeking its 20th Division I title
Foothill: Strong relay teams
Los Alamitos: Should win Sunset League title
Santa Margarita: Could challenge Irvine for league title
Villa Park: A strong overall team
Corona del Mar: The potential is there
Marina: Strong in freestyle events
Laguna Hills: Strong in breaststroke and fly
Capistrano Valley: Second-best in South Coast League