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Thursday, June 19, 2008 - Page updated at 10:05 PM

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At 45, Hodding Carter hangs on to Olympic dreams

When W. Hodding Carter IV slides into the pool for another day of training, he's not merely a former college swimmer seeking to become the longest of long shots by qualifying for the Beijing Olympics at age 45.

Associated Press Writer

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. —

When W. Hodding Carter IV slides into the pool for another day of training, he's not merely a former college swimmer seeking to become the longest of long shots by qualifying for the Beijing Olympics at age 45.

He's also seeking escape from his name - the son of a well-known official in President Jimmy Carter's administration and the grandson of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

"The really great thing is that swimming is an escape from all of that," Carter said. "It's not something they did. And it's this place where there's no expectations of me and from them, so it's great to be going back to that after all these years.

"I have this place where I get to go that has nothing to do with being named Hodding."

There is no doubt Carter is a bad bet to even qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials, let alone make the team. To get a chance to participate in the trials on June 29 Carter will need to qualify this weekend at the New England Master's Long Course Championship meet at Vermont's Middlebury College. His event of choice is the 50-meter freestyle, a distance where the two-time defending gold medalist - American Gary Hall Jr. - was beaten earlier this month by a 19-year-old Nathan Adrian in a tune up for the trials.

Carter's personal best in the 50-meter freestyle is 24.5 seconds - slightly better than his college best of 24.6. By comparison, Adrian posted a time of 22.01, beating Hall's 22.20 to win the Mutual of Omaha Swimvitational.

But Carter, a former Division III All-American and NCAA national champion at Ohio's Kenyon College, is swimming faster now than he did in college. His decision to return to a sport and make an unlikely run at Beijing isn't without precedent. Eight years ago, Melanie Roach herniated a disc in her back eight weeks before the trials in weightlifting. She quit the sport to raise a family and is now a 33-year-old mother of three.

She's also headed to Beijing after finishing this year's U.S. weightlifting trials as the nation's top-rated lifter.

"I think that just learning to enjoy the process is a concept that we all have to learn at some point," she said.

The process is at the heart of Carter's new book, "Off the Deep End" ($21.95, Algonquin Books). Published this month, it recounts his decision to try to make the 2008 games at a time when his marriage is on the rocks and his take-home pay from writing is not even minimum wage.

"Certainly, I needed a fix, and swimming had always done its part in the past, helping me through the sketchier times in my life," he writes. "So perhaps that's all it was: an unreflective fix to a faltering life."

The story includes none of Carter's famous family history. There is no mention of his grandfather, who won the Pulitzer in 1946 for his editorials on racial and religious tolerance that appeared in what was then the family-owned newspaper, the Greenville (Miss.) Delta Democrat-Times. There is no mention of his father, who served as the State Department spokesman for Jimmy Carter.

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Carter's name even appears on the book jacket without the "IV" but with the "W.," a change that his father noted with approval at a book signing party on Father's Day at his home in Chapel Hill.

"It is something that I really understand and respect, having suffered, as anybody does, from having a father whose name was going to be my curse as well as my adornment," Hodding III said. "He's gotten way past the curse."

The way the youngest Carter tells it, he began swimming at the age of 11 months when, while under the care of family friends, he fell into the pool. The adults pulled him out, dried him off and as soon as they turned their backs, he toddled back into the water.

He was learning strokes at the age of 3 and began competing when he was 5, continuing through his time at college before leaving the sport for real life - the Peace Corps, marriage, children. He lives today in Camden, Maine, where is a writer and the swim coach at the Penobscot Bay YMCA.

Though it may seem unlikely that Carter will get to race against Adrian and Hall at the trials, his attempt isn't any less novel than beer truck driver Deontay Wilder's decision three years ago to walk into a boxing gym for the first time.

The 22-year-old from Tuscaloosa, Ala., will fight in China as a heavyweight.

"I wasn't destined to be on the team, but I was determined to be," Wilder said.

When Carter returned to serious training, he refused to listen to most advice, even though he paid good money to attend swim camps where he was supposed to learn new ways. He wasn't going to wear the long-legged tech suits. He now owns three. He insisted on training the way he did at Kenyon, and wound up swimming too many laps for his age.

He now swims less, often with a parachute behind him for added ballast. He has, he said, only trained the right way for the past year. It's that training that gives him the illusion of defying the odds of aging, when he truth he said it's no longer going to be unusual for older athletes to compete. He points to four-time Olympian Dara Torres, who at 41 is trying to become the first American to swim in five Olympics.

"I like to say the future of athletics is going to be a whole lot wrinklier than it is now," Carter said.

Carter has been slowed recently by a bacteria-resistant staph infection, which landed him in the hospital and ate up valuable training time. He admits that he would be happy to make just the trials, while adding he's planning to train seriously for the London games in 2012 - at age 49.

"The great thing is the air quality in London is a lot better than Beijing, so that 2012 looks a lot better," he said.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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