Five years ago, in the middle of a carefree day, 10-year-old Bradford McKean of Pittsburgh announced to his parents that he had entered the three-quarter-mile cross-country run for sixth-graders at Shady Side Academy.
"Has it occurred to you," his father, Edgar McKean, asked, "that you do not even know how to pace yourself?"
"Yes," Brad McKean answered, "but some of the others do, so I will get ahead of them and try to stay there."
Using this strategy, Brad McKean won, defeating what his mother now describes as "a great, disorganized horde of boys." In the five years since his victory in the three-quarter-mile run, McKean has tilted at a variety of windmills, gathering a few scars and a trunkful of trophies. At 12 he was a Little League pitching standout; at 13, a two-way footballer and a basketball high-scorer. As a high school freshman last year he was a first-quintile scholar (with a low C in math). This year he is vice-president of his class and, although carrying quite an athletic load, he is still jumping nicely through the academic hoop, dragging his math behind him.
Ordinarily a promising high school student-athlete like McKean does not start hearing from college alumni and coaches until his junior or senior year. In McKean's case, the college sirens have not been able to contain themselves. If you want to know the admission requirements of the U.S. Naval Academy or the opportunities at the University of Michigan or what the future holds for Yale men, ask Brad McKean, for he has been getting lots of letters and free literature on such matters since the middle of his freshman year. Versatile scholar that he is, McKean is being applied for by the colleges this early in his career because he is, first and foremost, a competitive swimmer.
Understandably, a college basketball coach does not get interested in a growing high schooler until the lad is tall enough to bash his head on the lintel of a door. Similarly, the football hawks withhold judgment until a prospect has packed on most of his battle weight. A baseball scout, naturally enough, cannot afford to get excited about a Little Leaguer who plays only six innings on shortened base paths. Indeed, there are only two large sporting breeds today—Thoroughbred horses and age-group swimmers—that are allowed to work hard enough to show their class while they are still young and tender. Since there is no intercollegiate horse racing—and, for that matter, no horse able to clear the 1.6 academic barrier set up for collegians—it is the age-group swimmer who gets first call from the colleges.
Last year Swimmer McKean set 13 national records in the 13-to-14 age group. In the four months since he turned 15, he has been swimming faster than anyone his age has before. He has already clocked well enough in three or four events to score against any pack of collegians. At 15, McKean is a spectacular, but not a perfect, swimming specimen. His technique in the breaststroke, like his performance in math class, still needs improvement. His backstroke is satisfactory; his crawl stroke and butterfly are beautiful to watch. In the crawl McKean seems to cheat his way through the water, creating little furor while traveling fast. When he swims 100 yards in what looks like 51 seconds, by the cold hand of the stopwatch he actually does under 49.
Although McKean has only recently become a topic of general conversation around Pittsburgh, college coaches everywhere have been aware of him for quite a while. He made his first big splash in age-group swimming about three years ago, and his progress since has been dutifully noted by Swimming World, the aquatic monthly that serves, among other things, as talent scout for all the important institutions of higher swimming. At this very moment, while Pittsburghers are concentrating on the Pirates at Forbes Field, here and there around the country swimming coaches are down on their knees giving thanks that Pittsburgher Brad McKean has passed up baseball this spring to concentrate on swimming.
Last year, as a freshman at Shady Side, McKean won his varsity swimming letter and was rated an All-American in two events—accomplishments that are unusual, considering that Shady Side does not have a swimming coach, a swimming team or a swimming pool. Because he attends a private school, McKean is ineligible for local high school competition. He won his All-American rating and varsity letter by traveling to Lawrenceville, N.J., where he competed in the Eastern Interscholastic Swimming Championships as the sole member of a team that does not exist.
There are currently more than half a million age-group swimmers in the U.S. If McKean lived in one of the big swimming strongholds, such as Greater Los Angeles, the San Francisco area or the Florida Gold Coast, his preeminence would be easy to explain—if you build a big enough pyramid out of the vibrant, willing bodies of inexhaustible youth you are bound to get quality at the top. As a Pittsburgher, McKean is an enigma, an exotic product of an industrial, technological city that hammers out swimming champions as often as it does laureate poets.