My Carolina Experience: John Davis
By Zoya Johnson, GoHeels.com
John Davis' career as a student-athlete at Carolina was certainly a celebrated one. When he graduated in 1991, he had led UNC to three ACC swimming and diving championships in his four years while winning 11 individual ACC crowns, the most in conference history.
Davis was introduced to the sport from a place of fear. As a child one of his family members lost their life in a tragic swimming accident. This in turn made water something that scared Davis. At the age of seven, he had his own near death experience in a pool, causing his mother to put him in swimming lessons. At that point, the young Davis was so afraid of the water that he would almost wring his mother's neck with how tight he held onto her.
It was not until he was introduced to his first swimming coach that he was able to swim without a chair and then only with the promise of ice cream afterwards did he participate in his first competition. He negotiated with his coaches so he could use the sixth lane to be able to hold onto the guardrail, just in case. Davis went on to win his first ever swim meet not because of the sweets he was promised but because of the imaginary sharks in his lane he conjured up in his mind. Slowly, thanks to a string of amazing coaches his fear was replaced with confidence and Davis became one of the top-ranked swimmers in the country.
His college recruitment began during his junior year in high school. As a junior national champion Davis was receiving attention from the top swimming programs in the country. Despite the attention, he decided to take a post-graduate year at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania to give himself time to mature a little before college. It was then that UNC joined the bid to win Davis over.
"Because Carolina wasn't on the map nationally in men's swimming at the time, it was not a consideration for me. I ended up going to Carolina in April after most people had signed. My dad said 'Carolina keeps coming up. We might as well check it out. There are no professional swimmers right now so if you make the Olympic team and if you do well you are going to be able to ride that but at the end of the day you are going to have to have a real job so let's weigh our odds in terms of whose going to provide you with a great education and a great experience.' "
"It was the prowess of the entire package that sold me in the end. They (Carolina) were wanting to build up their program. They were wanting to grow. They were wanting to get an entire group of guys to help the program be the best it could be. It felt pretty cool to know that we were going to be building on something brand new whereas if I went to Texas or USC those guys had all won four or five national championships in a row and I was just another number. At Carolina, it felt like I was going to get a really personalized and unique experience."
"When I came on my recruiting trip to Carolina they were the only school that walked me through the academic piece of the puzzle and that was something that was foreign for me. It felt more like family. It felt like I was more at home in that experience and that's why I ended up choosing Carolina."
When Davis arrived at UNC, his goal was to be one of the first freshmen to be an NCAA finalist. Despite having a torn rotator cuff at the beginning of the season he was able to accomplish that goal in the 200-yard freestyle.
In his junior year John experienced a shift in his goals thanks to a talk with his group training coach Rich DeSelm, then an assistant and now the Tar Heels' head mentor since 2007. He said "At the end of the day it's awesome that you're a fast swimmer but what about your life? Who do you want to become?' That was a shift for me as well, in the fact that we weren't just focusing on the performance, we were focusing on the person. That is what Carolina has given me as an adult."
"My experience (at Carolina) was "how can we help you?" I was diagnosed as being dyslexic at the end of my high school career. Walking into Carolina they had an awesome program able to help people like me who struggled taking notes and struggled taking tests in the time frame allowed. I had nothing but support, and nothing but people who were eager and willing to go above and beyond so that I had a positive experience. I walked out of Carolina feeling like I was smart and equipped and ready to go. "
Before graduating from Carolina, Davis would be named the ACC Swimmer of the Year twice. He would also walk away with 11 individual ACC titles, securing the conference record for total number of individual championships. Once his eligibility was up, his goal was to secure a spot on the 1992 Olympic team but he would have to battle back from a devastating senior season that was cut short due to an exploded hernia.
This was in 1991. That April he arrived in Sarasota, Fla. to train for the Olympic Team feeling frustrated. His coach at the time reminded him that while he was training he had a duty to be a leader and mentor to the kids who were looking up to him on the team. "My coach just told me 'these kids have not swum with someone that has been as successful as you, so you have an opportunity and an obligation to connect with these kids and help them grow as athletes.' My coach was preparing me to counsel kids. I found that I could actually be useful and helpful based on my life experience and my life story, but I didn't have a skill set behind it. I just was open to hearing the story and I was open to being open to them."
Davis recalls having a great training experience that year and even swimming faster than world record pace three weeks out, but when it came time for Trials he had completely checked out. Davis did not make the team but he feels his life would have taken a much different path had he accomplished that goal.
"At the end of the day there was a different plan for my life. I ended up coming back to Carolina and I took four psychology classes and then decided to go to grad school. It was a complete shift."
Fast forward 20 years and Davis now has a practice that boasts a 90% success rate with its patients based on all of the things he was told he couldn't do as a psychologist. It was in grad school that Davis realized he gravitated towards the young adult population that most of society had already given up on. Thus, his approach innately had to be different. These young men were failing to succeed in other programs because what they lacked was a meaningful connection that they could trust in.
The young men involved in Davis' program are all the result of parental issues, backlash from bullying or personal loss or drug abuse and have usually seen many other therapists prior to Davis. Through the 2xtreme Dream program that Davis founded these young men are able to work together to reach their goals mentally and physically. "I have to match fire with fire with these guys and push the limits in a way that no one else has really pushed. Oftimes, my push back forces them into a place in which they have to take a look at their situation and do something about it. You are either going choose to climb, choose to grow, and choose to be the best that you can be or you're not."
Davis developed 2xtreme Dream around seven different facets with which all of the boys involved have to comply. During the program the young men must refrain from drugs and alcohol; they cannot have any negative police interaction; they must participate in some type of athletics or get a job. They must create their own treatment plan, actively participate in relationships at home, and participate in a type of community service of their choice. If they can do all of these things without accumulating three strikes they are rewarded with a trip to climb a mountain of their choosing. The trip is the final step in the process and serves as a physical reminder of how far they have come.
In the similar light, 2xtreme Dream signifies John Davis' own battle to overcome many obstacles during his own journey to fulfillment. While at Carolina, Davis learned what it meant to become a part of a family and represent something bigger than himself and feels he was blessed with mentors who shaped his eventual path. His advice to those who might be looking to follow in his footsteps is as follows; "Most athletes that go to Carolina are type A personality so they are incredibly driven and they all want to be successful and they have had success in the past. I don't know that many of them take a moment to really take it in. Carolina from my perspective has the most to offer of any university, not just athletically but also in forming relationships and participating in community service there are so many ways for them to be deeply connected."
The amazing thing about Davis's journey is that like the young men in his program, he never realized until he reached his own summit that his reward was the process of finding his calling and discovering the impact that he as one man could have on so many others. Like the address he made to the American Swimming Coaches Association in 2013, his journey mirrors the question; "How do you measure the impact of one man in another man's life?"
"I am close to about 8,000 patients. Altogether, that is about 35,000 people, counting their families and the people they go on to directly impact because of their association with 2xtreme."
This is the kind of connection that a Carolina athlete is promised and provided when they commit to the UNC. If you ask any Carolina student-athlete alumnus, he would be able to tell you about at least one mentor, teammate, classmate or colleague who impacted him in a way for which they are now forever grateful. Like Davis, they know their experience would not have been the same had they decided to pursue a career at another Division I program and they would not trade that experience for the world.
When Davis failed to make the 1992 Olympic team he thought separating himself from the athletic realm would ease the disappointment of the end of his athletic career. The truth is that through his Carolina Experience he was inspired to dream big enough to pursue a career that gave him that fulfillment."The (2xtreme Dream) program and the sport itself has gone full circle in rewarding me. I thought that that the reward would be me being a champion but in the end I can say I am a champion of life and not just a great athlete."