Disqualified. Gunther Cassell had just swum one of the best times of his career on one of the biggest stages in the country when he heard the news, and now the decision was up to him.
Would he leave the pool at the Junior National Championships in California bitter and disappointed, knowing that he had just lost a spot on Team USA? "It was something on the pullout," he said of a newly regulated underwater breaststroke technique. "I didn't even know I did it."
Or, would he climb back into the water once more for a time trial? The trial wouldn't earn him a spot on the team, nor would his time be as fast -- he'd be going in 25 minutes after his first race with no rest.
"The first couple of times I thought about it, I didn't want to do it," said Cassell, a Huntington senior, a five-year varsity swimmer and the top-recruited breaststroker in the state. "And then I thought, 'Why would I think that? Why would I do that? I'm not a quitter and I've never been a quitter. Sign me up.' "
Yes, the next time around was slower. But it was still really, really fast. Like, Olympic trials fast.
Cassell swam the 200-yard breaststroke in 2 minutes, 16.48 seconds, earning him a spot in the 2016 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. In the process, the Penn State commit continued to exemplify the perseverance that has peppered his accolade-laden high school career, the same perseverance that earned him state titles in the 100 breaststroke in his freshman and sophomore years. It also said something about Cassell's intense focus, perhaps a surprising attribute since he has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
"Some people look at ADHD and they see that as a setback," Cassell said. "I try to channel the energy and anxiety that comes with having ADHD and I try to turn that into something good. I try to use my crazy energy."
It's been working pretty well.
Cassell hopes to compete in the championships in the 100 breaststroke and the 200 individual medley this year, but his coach Gil Smith said that only hints at his versatility.
"He's an all-around swimmer," said Smith, who's been a high school coach for 33 years and has coached for 45 years overall. "I've only ever had three swimmers who could break a minute in all four strokes and he's one of them . . . He loves the competition and he'll give you everything he's got when it's on the line. Every time it's on the line he's there and every time he's in a final swim, it's his best time."
Actually making the Olympics is a longshot, Smith acknowledged, but it's a testament to Cassell that he doesn't think it's out of the realm of possibility. "He's going to be right there," Smith said, "so who knows?"
Cassell said it was an accomplishment just to make the trials. For now, though, he's got a spot on the podium to snatch back. Last year, he lost the state championship to Smithtown's Ben Cono, who's since graduated, and Cassell knows that this season, it's his to lose.
"I'm going to reclaim that title," he said. "You just have to not lose sight of what you want. If you want to reach your goals, you have to fight for them. You have to fight for the time you want, and if you have to train doubles, then you train doubles."
He tempers his competitiveness with a healthy dose of respect for those around him, though.
"I've always been one for competition," he explained. "And it's about facing your opponents head on and it's about having a healthy competitiveness and a healthy lifestyle. You have to respect your opponents and I keep many of them close at heart, because a lot of them are very good friends of mine."
His other goal will have to wait for the summer at Junior Nationals. He hasn't completely washed the taste of that disqualification out of his mouth. Making the Olympic trial time was lovely, but he isn't done.
"I'm going to come back and hit it harder," he said. "That will be me on the podium . . . Get knocked down seven times and come back eight."