It’s 5:15 a.m. Most students are sleeping, but senior Joe Zales is hopping into the pool for his third morning swim practice of the week for two hours before school. 

This dedication of about 20 hours in the pool per week has paid dividends. Zales recently signed with Harvey Mudd College in Claremont to swim for the Division III Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Stags. 

Zales prioritized academic and athletic balance during recruiting trips to Dartmouth, Harvey Mudd and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), along with an unofficial trip to Brown last fall.

“You fly out and spend the weekend with the team,” he said. “I wanted to be able to do engineering and swim, which is really hard to do at most schools because of the time commitment.” 

Zales said he ultimately chose Harvey Mudd because of the team environment. 

“The Harvey Mudd people were happy to be there,” he said. “Even though (Harvey Mudd’s team) is across three schools, the team was super close.”

Attending Harvey Mudd will also give Zales access to the four other Claremont colleges and more non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students.

After transitioning from recreational to year-round swimming at age 9, Zales realized that training at DART Sacramento was different.

“The kids are faster, work harder, and it’s year-round,” he said.

Zales recognized the time commitment and arduous schedule. 

Starting in sixth grade, swimmers attend two morning and five afternoon practices in addition to a practice on Saturday. Then, in ninth grade, swimmers tack on a third morning practice. All morning practices start at 5:15 a.m. 

To balance swimming and school, Zales said he utilized independent PE throughout middle and high school. 

“(Swimming) makes you have to be on top of your workload,” he said. “All the swimmers I know have to have great time management in order to continue to swim.”

In addition to maintaining his academics, Zales volunteers by teaching swim lessons. After starting at age 12 as a helper, Zales moved up to teaching on his own by age 14.

According to Zales, joining the high school swimming and diving team in his freshman year sparked him to think more about swimming in college.

“You see kids going off to swim in college, but you don’t know how fast you’re going to be senior year,” he said. “It has always been the next step or the (goal) you work toward.”

This year, Zales competed in the varsity 200- and 500-yard freestyle at the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Swimming and Diving Championships on May 2-4 at Tokay High School in Lodi. Zales placed sixth in the 200 preliminary (one minute, 43.26 seconds) and sixth in the final (1:42.34). Zales placed third (4:35.23) in the 500 preliminary and third (4:34.76) in the final, qualifying for the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) State Championships, May 10-11 at West Clovis High School in Fresno, in both events. 

Zales, however, was unable to qualify for the finals in either event.

Coach Brian Nabeta praised Zales’ development as a swimmer.

“Joe epitomizes growth,” Nabeta said. “He grew as a swimmer and learned to be a student of the game, and that is what helped him become the swimmer he is today.”

Moving to the high school group with DART knit tight relationships, Zales said, with some of his favorite memories occurring on trips.

“(Swim) creates a family,” he said. “I moved to swim with (DART) Davis, and even though I’ve only been there about nine months, it’s just as close of a team.

“My happiest memories of swimming aren’t necessarily the racing, which is fun. It’s really the team coming together for relays, trips or breakfast after a morning practice.”

Zales added that swimming will help him acclimate to college.

“I already know I’m rooming with swimmers in a suite,” he said. “It (gives me) access to upperclassmen and a group of people that (I’ll) know on campus.”

Zales said he enjoys not only the individual aspects of swimming, but also the uplifting team experiences.

“Even though swimming is an individual sport, you compete against others and yourself, bettering your time,” he said. “Your team is there to pull you up and make you stronger.”

—By Jackson Crawford

Originally published in the May 28 edition of the Octagon.

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