The goal in high school swimming is to swim your best by the time CIF finals roll around.
Few have done it better than Corona del Mar High senior Garrett Larson.
Larson really hits his stride when he's tapered. On a crowded, noisy pool deck at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach, he knows how to deliver for the Sea Kings.
He did it again at the CIF Southern Section Division I finals May 13. Larson swam the breaststroke leg as he, Jared Namba, Christian Garkani and Ari Marks won the 200-yard medley relay in 1 minute, 34.28 seconds.
"We won it last year too, so it was good to keep the title," he said. "We switched up the order. Christian Garkani was going to do backstroke and Jared was going to do fly, and we switched them. I think that really helped. [John Kim] usually does the fly, so we had to find a new flier. Since Jared's such a good backstroker, we decided to put Christian in the fly and he went really fast. He pulled through."
Kim missed the meet due to a sprained ankle but CdM still placed third as a team for the second straight year. It wouldn't have been possible without Larson, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week who was also third in the 200 individual medley (1:51.65) for the second straight year, as well as 12th in the breaststroke.
Larson, who has signed with the University of Minnesota, would be the last one to toot his own horn. CdM Coach Barry O'Dea called Larson "pretty mild mannered," but his talent shines when he's on the pool deck.
Take the 200 IM, for example, where Larson went a 1:56.50 at Pacific Coast League finals, good for second place, before shaving off nearly five seconds at CIF finals. Larson said this didn't surprise him, because a similar thing happened his junior year.
It could be called just a good taper. It could also be called stepping up at a big moment.
"I had him going top three," O'Dea said of his four-year varsity swimmer. "We were really happy with his performance there. He wasn't hitting his best times up to that point, and then all of a sudden he just exploded. Every year, it just seems like at CIF time he hits another level."
Larson began swimming at age 4 with Coach Ted Bandaruk and the neighborhood Harbor View Swim Team. Three years later he began at the Irvine-based AquaZot Swim Club, where he's coached by Brian Pajer and has met many of his best friends like Namba, Chris Wong of University High and Michael Hauss of Edison High.
Larson is part of the top group at AquaZots, known as the "senior 3" group. It's reserved for the ultra-dedicated swimmers who spend hours upon hours trying to perfect their stroke.
"You're not allowed to do any other sport, and you have to make all the practices," he said. "If you do miss, you have to make it up in your free time. New Year's Eve we swim, Christmas Eve we swim, Thanksgiving morning we swim."
The training is grueling but it doesn't mean Larson slacks off in the classroom, where he has a 3.99 weighted grade-point average. The benefits of putting in so much work are easy to see. Larson placed 22nd in the nation in the 200 IM last year at the National Club Swimming Assn. Junior Nationals. His prelims time from that long-course meet was 2:09.01, a little more than two seconds off the 2012 Olympic trials cut of 2:06.59.
Making that Olympic trials cut is a definite goal of Larson's as he prepares for this year's Junior Nationals, at Stanford in August.
He said his older sister Kelsey, who also swam at CdM and now is a sophomore swimmer at the University of Nebraska, is going for her own Olympic trials cut in the 200-meter breaststroke. Younger sister Nicole, a seventh grader at CdM who also swims for the AquaZots, provides a certain chlorine continuity for the Larson family.
"When we moved into our house there was a pool in our backyard," Garrett Larson said. "We were really young and we didn't know how to swim yet, but our parents [Bruce and Jackie] signed us up for the neighborhood summer league team. We learned there, and it kind of just took off."
Now it's come full circle, as Larson said he plans to come back to swim at Harbor View this summer. Coach Ted will welcome back the blonde-haired standout.
"I haven't done it for a while," Larson said. "I figured since it's my last year here, I might as well do it. Summer league is pretty fun. It's relaxed, so I like it."
He fits right in.