Cortens a sweet sensation

The last day of Taylor Cortens' Spanish class called for celebration. Time for a fiesta for Taylor.

The party featured a variety of candy and treats. Flashing his beaming smile, Taylor consumed all the goodies possible.

On a normal day, this would not present any problems. But, Taylor's first swim practice followed the party.

With a sense of anticipation buried deep within — past the consumed chocolate and sugar that occupied his stomach — he attended practice.

Taylor splashed into the water that day four years ago. The excitement quickly disappeared, faster than the tears that followed.

With watering eyes, an aching stomach and chlorine soaked skin, Taylor appeared as if he were not made for swimming.

"I got in the pool and started swimming and I got a huge cramp and didn't feel good," said Taylor, a 9-year-old who lives in Newport Beach and attends Andersen Elementary. "I didn't have that good of a time and I wanted to quit."

Long before Taylor shattered any swimming records, he experienced doubts. But those doubts he eventually drowned. His family and friends watched with intrigue as his swimming prowess evolved as a member of the Newport Hills Killer Whales.

Taylor reached a new caliber on June 9 when his time in the 100-yard individual medley (1 minute, 12.44 seconds) broke the 9-10 age-group record and Harbor View pool record of 1:14.39, set by Aaron Peirsol, who went on to become a three-time Olympic gold medalist. The record is for competition in the South Coast Swim Conference.

Peirsol, a world record holder in the 100-meter backstroke, began his career as a child swimming for Harbor View, which is Newport Hills' rival. He continued dominating as a Newport Harbor High phenom and went on to excel at the University of Texas.

He is slated to graduate in the fall and is preparing for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

"I'm actually surprised it's taken this long [to break the record]," Peirsol said. "I think that it's definitely wonderful. Those things are made to be broken."

Taylor remains humbled by breaking the record and admires Peirsol as well as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Taylor keeps a small poster of Phelps in his bedroom.

"I got out of the water and I looked at my time and when I knew it was faster I felt really good," said Taylor, who competes in the backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke, freestyle and IM. "I just walked over to the tent and everyone was congratulating me on the time."

There wasn't much to celebrate five years earlier after Taylor's first swim practice.

Taylor's spirits dampened because of his forgettable first experience with swimming. After witnessing her son's agonizing swim episode, Irene Cortens became worried.

"He came out crying and said he had a stomach ache and didn't want to do it anymore," Irene Cortens said. "I thought 'oh boy, it's going to be a long summer.' "

Taylor is the eldest of Jim and Irene Cortens' boys. His younger brother, 7-year-old Morgan, also swims for the Newport Hills Killer Whales, which are in first place in the South Coast Swim Conference. The youngest Cortens, 4-year-old Jordan, has yet to try swimming.

With dedication and perseverance, Taylor propelled to be among the elite in the Newport Hills swimming circles.

Under the guidance of Coach Michelle Dienzo, Taylor flourished.

"He's a hard worker and very coachable," Dienzo, in her fourth year as coach, said. "Whenever I tell him to change his stroke or do something different with strategy in a race, he'll do it, no questions asked."

Irene Cortens credits the energetic and passionate Dienzo as the reason for Taylor sticking with swimming.

"Our first coach wasn't as involved or enthusiastic," Cortens said. "Michelle came in as head coach and it just kind of clicked for [Taylor]."

Taylor's endless energy is spent on swimming, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse and even fishing. The only thing missing is video games.

"I would rather be outside playing a sport," Taylor said. "But when I get bored and none of my friends are home I'll go inside and play video games."

Dienzo suggested that Taylor hone his skills by joining club swimming. He joined the AquaZot swim club, but returns to swim in the summer league with his friends and Dienzo.

"It's just nice to know that someone of that caliber can still do summer league and still love it and keep the love for swimming all the way throughout the year," Dienzo said.

Jim and Irene couldn't be prouder of all that Taylor is accomplishing. They have grown to love swimming and remain impressed by the discipline Taylor demonstrates.

Taylor regularly finishes his homework before attending practice. Despite Jim working, he tries to attend as many of Taylor's sporting events as possible.

If Jim is absent, Irene is usually present, cheering for her son. Irene is the vice president on the Newport Hills Swim Team executive board and is on the Newport Beach Little League board.

"It feels really good to have my mom and dad support me because I know they are always there cheering me on," Taylor said. "It gives me motivation."

Taylor enjoys being able to swim with his friends and his brother Morgan. Taylor and Morgan are constantly challenging each other while playing sports.

Sometimes, Taylor presents Morgan with an advantage.

"We're always racing each other," Taylor said. "I'll let him win sometimes, but whenever I'm mad at him I'll beat him."

Taylor continually gives Morgan tips when they compete at swim meets.

Away from the pool, Taylor shares laughs with classmates and stays out of trouble, for the most part.

"Occasionally my friends and I will get in a little trouble for pulling a prank or something like that," Taylor said. " … or not listening, but most of the time we are pretty good about it."

But Taylor maintains his passion for swimming. He hopes to keep it that way.

Yet, parents of gifted athletes often are concerned about their child burning out. The pressures and daily grind of practicing and competing often associate with a triumphant athlete's success.

"He is a lot better at his age than most swimmers I've seen and I've been doing this for a long time," Dienzo said. "I think he's definitely looking in the future as an Olympic hopeful [but] with the burnout, you never know how it actually pans out when they get older."

Peirsol credited hard work and patience as ways to overcome pressure. He values his coaches and is receptive to learning more.

"At that young age, you shouldn't worry about the pressure too much," Peirsol said. "More than anything, back then, I was just having fun."

In the future, Taylor desires to swim throughout high school and college. Beyond that, the Olympics would be a fulfilled dream for Taylor.

For now, he's hitting the books. Taylor's favorite school subject is history because he enjoys reading about important events. If Taylor wins a gold medal and is put into a book, he would read that, too.

"If I can get [in] a book, I'd like to read it," Taylor said.

If that day comes, hopefully Taylor will enjoy his celebratory candy in moderation.


JASON KORNFELD may be reached at (714) 966-4616 or at jason.kornfeld@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°