I would like to swap athletic anecdotes with Alexander Righi ’09, a Yale swimmer who has qualified for the Olympic trial meet this summer. Unfortunately, my experience with Righi’s sport has been limited to two trips to Payne Whitney Gym, the latter of which ended in my friend puking from “over-exertion” just outside the men’s locker room. So on the freezing-cold day when I meet Righi, I can only offer a pathetic-sounding “Cold day to swim, huh?”
Righi’s enthusiasm, however, not only about his shot at the Olympics, but also about swimming at Yale, is contagious. Moreover, from what his teammates and coaches say, Righi is as modest and diligent as he is accomplished and talented, much like his role model, Tiger Woods.
“With talent rivaling the best swimmers in the world,” best friend and teammate Dennen McCloskey ’09 says, “Righi has remained humble and focused.”
From his toddler years swimming in his country-club league in Phoenix, Arizona, to four years on Brophy College Prep.’s varsity team, to representing the U.S. at the Pan American games this past summer, Righi has proven himself a born competitor and a valuable teammate.
“In writing about Alex you can use all of the typical sport cliches, because they all apply,” Assistant Coach Tim Wise wrote in an e-mail. “He is the hardest worker in the group — usually the first one in the water and the last one to leave.”
While Righi attends up to eight swim practices each week and undergoes intensive weight training, it seems that his stint on Yale’s team has not just been an exercise in hardship. First of all, he claims to have an enviably unhealthy diet, and has been known to binge on late-night cookies, ice cream and other junk food, all of which he effortlessly burns off. He also genuinely loves his team.
“I could have really gone to any swimming school in the country,” Righi says, “but at Yale we bonded really well as a team. Coming from an all-guys’ school with a really cohesive group of swimmers, I wanted another four years that were as close to that as I could get.”
Nationally ranked sixth in the 50 Freestyle, fourteenth in the 100 Backstroke and fourth in the 100 Freestyle, Righi is currently preparing for the NCAA meet at the end of March — it’s remarkable that he has time for anything other than practice. But he says that that was one of the draws of Yale: swimming is not a full-time job here. He has time to pursue other interests, such as political science, and maybe gearing up for law school someday.
Righi is unafraid to answer the more hard-hitting questions of someone so athletically uninitiated as to associate swimming first and foremost with the movie “Swimf@n.” He is happy to explain what he would be wearing in the Olympic pools, what is on his “Pump-up for Beijing” mix and what and why the swim team shaves.
“I’ve always worn the Speedo Fastskin Pro,” Righi explains. “The suit I’ll wear goes up to my shoulders and looks a little bit like overalls, and for backstroke I just wear legs. My mix is always changing, but if I had to pick right now, ‘Heart Delay’ by Years Around the Sun, ‘Angel’ by Massive Attack and ‘Pachuca Sunrise’ by Minus the Bear. And shaving is more mental than physical. The way you feel in the water is different.”
Toward the end of the interview, Righi finally clears up the real mysteries of swimming: Everyone pees in the pool and he’d rather have gills than webbed feet and hands. I leave knowing enough about swimming to sustain a brief cocktail party conversation.
As McCloskey says, “In the history of swimming, there have only been three names — Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps and Alexander Righi.”