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Riverside Military grad vies for Olympic swimming berth
Ben Gunn, a graduate of Riverside Military Academy where he was a state champion and all-American swimmer, is competing in the Olympic Trials for swimming beginning today in Omaha, Neb. - photo by Tom Reed

As Ben Gunn dives into the pool today, visions of a gold medal won’t be on his mind.

Nor will there be visions of a silver or a bronze, or even a trip to Beijing as a member of the U.S. Olympic swim team. All Gunn will see is the water in front of him and a personal time to beat.

"I just want to have a good race," said Gunn, a Gainesville native and Riverside Military Academy graduate. "I’m just going to take some time off and enjoy the experience."

The experience begins today at noon, as the 19-year-old Air Force Academy cadet takes to the pool in the preliminaries of the 100-meter butterfly event at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Neb.

A top-four finish in the preliminaries will send Gunn to the finals of the event tonight where, if he finishes in the top two, he’ll earn a trip to the 2008 Olympics.

But that Olympic berth won’t come easy. Swimming alongside Gunn will be six-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and world-record holder Ian Crocker.

"Qualifying will be a real challenge for Ben," said Jim Young, who coached Gunn for 10 years at Lanier Aquatics. "Basically, he’s going to have to swim as fast as he can."

The fastest he’s been able to swim so far is the 55.53 seconds he put in at a qualifying event at the University of Texas in March. That time was good enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials.

Phelps was at that qualifier, as well, finishing the 100-fly with a time of 51 seconds, and providing Gunn with a first-hand look at greatness.

"It’s just a great feeling being in the pool with the guy that’s that good and going to the Olympics," Gunn said of Phelps.

According to Young, there’s a reason why Phelps is so much better then everyone else.

"All he does is train," said Young, the owner and head coach at Lanier Aquatics. "Swimming is his life.

"When you go to the Air Force Academy like Ben does, obviously he can’t train year-round like Phelps can. Ben would have to train at that level and be just as determined to be the best in the world."

At 8-years-old Gunn began swimming in summer leagues at Lanier Aquatics and immediately fell in love with the sport.

Despite occasionally tiring of it and trying other sports, he always came back to swimming, and eventually turned the love for the sport into a desire to be great.

"As I got older my expectations and desire kept increasing," Dunn said. "I knew the Olympics is where I wanted to be."

As his expectations grew, so did his success in the pool.

As a high school senior, Gunn set state records in the 200-yard individual medley (1.54.02), 100-yard freestyle (48.02) and 100-yard backstroke (53.14) and was named an All-American in the 200-IM.

A nine-time state champion, Gunn was a member of an Eagles team that won state titles in each of his four years in high school, but high school swimming was nothing compared to qualifying for the Olympics.

"He was always a good swimmer," said Ben’s father, Jim Gunn. "But we never expected anything like this."

His coach did.

"The older he got, the more mature and focused he got in his training," Young said. "He was always a talented kid, and when he started training more seriously, his talent came through."

That training increased more when he arrived at the Air Force Academy and even more after he qualified for the Olympic Trials.

"I really stepped up my training a lot," said Gunn, who now swims between 5,000 and 8,000 yards a day. "I pretty much doubled the amount I trained, which has allowed my quality to increase and my time to improve."

That training has also provided him with the opportunity to achieve his lifelong goal — making the Olympic swim team.

But as his mother Joellen Gunn cheers from the stands in Omaha, and his father repeatedly checks the Internet for the results of his son’s meet, Ben Gunn will not be focusing on making the Olympic team. Instead, he’ll just be relishing the opportunity to swim on one of the greatest stages in his life.

"It really wouldn’t hurt that much if I don’t make the team," he said. "Just being there and swimming in that huge facility in front of all those people is going to be special. The atmosphere is going to be awesome."

And what would happen if he did some how make the team?

"I wouldn’t even know what to do," he admitted. "That would pretty much be a shock, and it would be the most amazing thing ever."

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