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UMW swimmer takes different strokes to a national title

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His left leg forward and his arms dangling toward his toes, Alex Anderson did not consider the magnitude of what he was trying to accomplish. 

He gave little thought to where he was, or why he was there, or even how he got there. His white swim cap pulled down near the bridge of his nose and his goggles covering his eyes, Anderson took a breath and repeated what he had told himself often over the past two-plus years, shortly before the horn signaled the start of another race:

Swim like a bat out of hell.

It was something his mother, Denise, once told him—a phrase he never understood, but one that motivated him enough that he took comfort in its cadence. It helped him dim the roar surrounding him and narrow his focus, leaving him in harmony with the water, fixated on his pursuit.

The same approach had helped Anderson earlier in the day, when he set a personal record in the 400-yard individual medley by finishing in 3 minutes, 53 seconds. Now Anderson, a 25-year-old sophomore at the University of Mary Washington, was convinced he could take the next step.

If he could drop two more seconds from his time at this meet in Shenandoah, Texas, he’d not only win the NCAA Division III championship, he’d set a national record. It would erase all of those years of hardship. It would validate all those years of reclamation.

He grabbed the edge of the platform and arched his back. The horn sounded, and Anderson dove in.


Rich Anderson grew up surfing on the New Jersey shoreline, chasing the waves and the beautiful beach babes. That’s what he called Denise McKenna, whom he met there and would later marry.

It was only natural that their two sons, Alex and Max, felt comfortable in the water. They learned to swim and surf on family vacations, mostly to Sag Harbor, a quaint coastal village on New York’s Long Island.

An environmental consultant, Rich moved his family from Marblehead, Mass., to Fairfax when Alex was 3. Alex enrolled in a summer swim club two years later.

By age 12, Alex was setting records for his age group. When he was 16, he swam alongside Kate Ziegler and Chloe Sutton, each of whom competed in the London Olympics last summer.

Before his sophomore year at James Madison High School in Vienna, though, Anderson’s focus began fading.

Denise was diagnosed with breast cancer, devastating the family. Anderson cared less about schoolwork; to escape the realities of his changing home life, he’d run off with friends.

His interest in swimming also diminished. By the time he was a senior, he had tired of the sport, though he finished his high school career with a state record in the 500-yard freestyle, winning the Group AAA title in 4:30.57. Phone calls from recruiters at colleges such as Indiana and Arizona, a dream to some, only pushed Anderson further away.

When he graduated in 2006, Anderson stopped swimming altogether. He enrolled in classes at Northern Virginia Community College that fall out of a sense of obligation, but didn’t care if he happened to miss one. Eventually, he stopped going altogether.

The attention, the pressure, the emotions—he couldn’t deal with them anymore. Anderson moved out of his house and into an apartment in nearby Annandale.

One night in May 2007, after a protracted, five-year battle, Denise died of breast cancer. She was 56.


Amid the haze of an ambiguous future, Anderson experienced a moment of clarity.

It was the summer of 2009, and he had been living on his own for nearly 2 years, bouncing from one low-paying job to another. Once thrilled to be financially independent, Anderson wasn’t happy.

The scars on his left forearm—left after he leaned into a grill while cooking at a Mexican restaurant—constantly reminded him of his displeasure. He was once a waiter, then a cashier at Whole Foods, then stocked shelves at Kohl’s. A friend helped him make money watering plants, and he turned that into time as a carpenter’s apprentice.

If there was relief, it came on the weekends, when Anderson and his three roommates would drink, smoke and party. There was a brush with the law and occasional immature mischief; it was a scene Anderson no longer wanted to be part of.

One night, with the droning of the television providing his roommates their only liberation from reality, Anderson planned his.

“I was like, ‘The only way for me to get out of this is if I completely drop everything that I was doing, because everything that I was doing was leading me back to the same situation,’” Anderson said. “I realized one day that the only way to get out of that was to leave everything behind.”

Anderson developed a plan: He’d go back to NoVa and begin taking classes. Perhaps he could swim, too, which could get him into a four-year college.

His father was skeptical, especially after Anderson’s apathy won out the first time. A series of discussions convinced him.

Anderson moved back home. He never spoke to his roommates again.

“You sort of support him, but you do have to question your children about their motivations in order to determine what your best advice to them is,” Rich Anderson said. “If I felt he was fickle, I would not have supported him to go back to school.”


Christian Doud was eager to show up at the aquatics center at George Mason University one afternoon that fall. Anderson, a former student of his at Machine Aquatics, a Fairfax-based swim club, had been exchanging emails with him about getting back in the pool.

“So, Alex comes in and he’s not a big guy—just this unassuming-looking guy,” said Danny Camozzo, a junior swimmer at George Mason who was working out that afternoon. “We meet, and Christian starts telling me about some of his old times, and it was pretty impressive.”

Anderson, then 23, wanted swimming to be fun again, and he knew Doud, his former coach, would help him. It took a while, but Anderson started to swim faster again.

Life improved away from the pool. Though he was on academic probation when he returned to NoVa—he never properly withdrew the first time and failed all of his classes—Anderson started earning A’s in a variety of courses.

He also started dating Kristen Callahan, a freshman swimmer at UMW he met during his workouts. After three semesters of community college and improved times in the pool, Callahan told Anderson about her swim team. She also told Abby Brethauer, UMW’s head coach, about Anderson’s interest.

Brethauer’s pitch was simple.

“We think you’re going to get faster, and we think you’re going to change the face of this program,” she told him. “We can be really good really quickly building off of your success.”

He was sold. Five and a half years after Anderson graduated high school, he enrolled at UMW in the fall of 2011.


Anderson’s races all follow a pattern. A tenacious competitor, he takes the lead not long after hitting the water, then fights to keep it.

Callahan noticed it on March 21 after Anderson’s first two laps of the 400 individual medley. She and two dozen other teammates were watching the race in The Eagle’s Nest, a dining hall on campus. The NCAA streamed the championships online, and someone connected a laptop to a television screen so that everyone could see it.

Twelve hundred miles away, Anderson’s teammates had made enough of a scene to draw the attention of other students.

“He’s a very strong butterfly [swimmer], so he went out really fast and we all looked at his 100 splits,” Callahan said. “After the first 100 fly, we were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s so fast.’”

Anderson didn’t have a clear lead. He was pushed over the first 50 yards of the butterfly by Stevens (N.J.) Tech’s John Hu, and he knew Denison’s Allen Weik would lurk and make a late charge during the freestyle.

Anderson maintained the edge through the backstroke. Hu had cut into his lead over the final 50 yards, but now the race turned to the

strokes where Anderson was strongest.

Watching from the bleachers, Rich Anderson grew more confident that his son would win.

“As you watch this, your heart is in your throat in anticipation and excitement,” he said. “I had to contain my excitement so I didn’t look out of place.”

In the pool, Alex Anderson felt the same way.

“When I turned over to the breaststroke, that’s when I started picking it up a little bit,” he recalled. “And then when it turned to freestyle, I knew I had it.”

He extended his advantage to a body length over Hu through the first 75 yards of the breaststroke.

When the swimmers turned to the freestyle for the last quarter of the race, Hu faded after the first lap. Weik charged too late. Anderson knew he had won. With one last kick, he coasted to the wall.

He took a moment to catch his breath before the times appeared. He thought about his teammates. He thought about his past and his future.

He thought about his father in the stands, and his mother. She wouldn’t have wanted him to quit swimming. In some way, he had come to realize, he was swimming to keep her memory alive.

He looked up and smiled. There it was: 3:50.55. He had set a Division III record by nearly a second.

Like a bat out of hell.

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440