Ed Walsh shifted nervously in a folding chair that had been set up a few feet from the water’s edge in the quietest part of the University of Tennessee’s aquatics center.
Younger kids were wrapping up their practice and UT’s swimmers were trickling in for an afternoon training session.
This was supposed to be a routine interview about an upcoming meet, but the tenor of the conversation had shifted.
“I grew up a lot quicker than other kids my age,” Walsh said simply.
Walsh’s swimming career will end this week at the NCAA men’s championships in Indianapolis. He’ll compete in seven events — three individual races and four relays — and have to swim as many as six times in Day 1 alone.
“I’ve got probably the hardest meet of my life,” he said.
And he’d rather talk about that. In fact, he’d do anything to talk about that.
But one answer led to another and suddenly he was talking about a part of his life that many people here at Tennessee don’t know about. And he wasn’t quite sure that he should be.
He grew up in a gritty London housing estate, fiercely loyal to the single mom who had raised him after fleeing his alcoholic father. His father, now dead, was a semipro boxer from whom he inherited pugnaciousness but little else.
Like most elite swimmers, he possesses an insane work ethic. Unlike many of his American teammates who are products of suburban clubs, Walsh cultivated his talent by taking early morning metro rides — alone — from his home in south London to swim practice.
When the NCAA championships are over, Walsh plans to begin the next chapter of his life as a coach. For his future pupils, the first part of his story is worth telling.
Hating To Lose
At an early season meet at Kentucky in 2010 that the Vols won handily, there was one striking anomaly. Kentucky won the 200 freestyle relay, beating Walsh’s UT team by 0.32 seconds.
The Vols had split their best 200 relay into two, hoping to finish 1-2 and maximize their points. Instead, they were beaten at what should have been a strong event.
“You don’t always put your fastest team out; you put out the fastest team that you think will win,” explained coach Matt Kredich, who now leads both the UT men’s and women’s programs.
As he climbed out of the pool and saw the times, Walsh was furious. He marched up to the assembled coaches on the pool deck: “That’s (expletive)!” he shouted, loud enough for teammates to hear. “Why don’t you put out the best team?”
Kredich snapped back, “Why don’t you swim faster next time?”
“I think I gave him the death stare,” Walsh remembered.
Kredich had to contain a smile. Kredich would remember the moment vividly when he became Walsh’s coach two years later.
“He hated to lose,” Kredich said, “and he liked having that chip on his shoulder.”
Swimming Over Soccer
Joe Walsh was a sometime-boxer and chronic alcoholic whose violent mood swings shattered the stability of Ed’s early family life.
“He loved the bottle more than anything,” Walsh said.
When Ed was about 10, his mom fled for good, taking her two sons (Ed and brother Dennis) with her. With no permanent place to stay, they took transitional lodging at a bed-and-breakfast. Later, they moved in with his grandmother. Eventually, a spot opened up in council housing (what would be called public housing in the U.S.) and they settled permanently.
When his dad died a few months later, Walsh’s feelings were complex. The grief that one was supposed to feel wasn’t there. Confusion and anger were in its place. Only recently has he come to terms with his father’s turbulent place in his life story.
“It took me a long time before I was at peace,” he said. “I was angry for a long time.”
Walsh channeled his emotions into sports, and he grew into a talented youth soccer player in a country where soccer is king.
Top swimmers are sometimes groomed from the youngest ages, but Walsh happened into the swimming world almost accidentally, without formal training and with few initial expectations.
A brief tryout with one local club convinced him — and the coaches — that his natural athleticism would make him a formidable swimmer with a bit of seasoning. But he was kicked off the club because he spent too much time playing soccer.
“They thought I wasn’t really committed,” Walsh said.
And perhaps, at that time, he wasn’t. Ultimately Walsh decided a full-time commitment to swimming gave him a better chance of earning a college scholarship overseas, rather than being routed to a soccer academy, which was the fate of the top youth soccer players.
Walsh said his second coach, Dave Hobbs, had to convince him how good he really was. Once he did, “Swimming took over my life.”
Enter Joe Hendee
Walsh didn’t wait for the top college programs to call. He spent late nights clicking through the names and emails of college coaches in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Although Walsh had the numbers to impress coaches, he was hampered by his location, the fact that he was a relatively late bloomer in the sport and the concern that his physical size didn’t match the prototype of a sprinter.
Not all sprinters have the freakish torso of Olympic champion Michael Phelps, but they tend to be taller and larger than their counterparts in distance events. Walsh is often among the smaller sprinters on the pool deck.
“I love being an underdog,” he said. “Like Manny Pacquiao, pound for pound I feel like I can compete with anyone.”
Walsh’s hard work — in the pool in London and on the Internet — paid off when Tennessee assistant coach Joe Hendee took an interest and struck up a relationship. A recruiting visit to Knoxville wasn’t possible, so Hendee showed him pictures of his future campus.
“I’d never been to Tennessee. But the coaches had great enthusiasm. It seemed like there was a lot of pride and spirit,” Walsh said.
Most importantly? “They wanted me to come there.”
The folksy Hendee was Walsh’s link to what was a foreign place.
“Picture Joe from Tennessee going over to England and recruiting this kid who’s from a gritty part of London,” Kredich said. “But Ed is here because he connected with Joe.”
Although Walsh grew up in a cosmopolitan city, his world was still very small when he landed in the United States for the first time. His accent was thick, and his early encounters with Southerners produced mutually unintelligible conversations.
“I wish I had a camera to record that first year in the United States,” he said.
Not long after arriving, he looked the wrong way while crossing the street (cars drive on the left side of the road in England) and a driver ran over his foot.
“The guy pulled over and said, ‘Are you OK?’” Walsh remembered. “I didn’t know what to say. I’d looked the wrong way.”
Sam Petersen, another UT swimmer, quickly struck up a friendship with Walsh when they arrived as freshmen in 2009.
“He would just use this British dialogue. He would say certain phrases, and you’d be like, ‘That really doesn’t make any sense at all,’ ” Petersen said.
Walsh is very “Americanized” now, according to Petersen, and Walsh credits his teammates and friends at Tennessee with helping him blossom into an assertive leader.
When UT dropped a meet against Virginia Tech, Walsh was furious and called all the men’s swimmers into the team room for a film session. He critiqued everything from starts, strokes and turns to the team’s enthusiasm level.
“At one point, I just screamed, ‘There’s nobody cheering on this pool deck. You can see it on the film,’ ” Walsh said. “And the guys were like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ ”
At the next meet, against a top-10 Georgia team, every swimmer was lined up on the deck cheering on the competitors. And, Walsh said, “We just destroyed them in the water.”
The first part of Walsh’s career at UT was anything but serene.
Hendee, the man responsible for plucking him out of England, was diagnosed with brain cancer not long after Walsh arrived at Tennessee. He died at his home on April 24, 2011, at the age of 50.
“I lost my father when I was 10 years old, and (Hendee’s) funeral was the saddest day of my life,” Walsh said. “He was a father figure to me. He was definitely one of the top coaches and influences on my life.”
There would be more changes to come in the men’s swimming program.
Seven months after Hendee’s death, UT began investigating head coach John Trembley amid worries of financial improprieties and bizarre behavior by the longtime coach. Trembley had shown signs of depression after the death of Hendee, sometimes sitting under his desk in the dark, according to one UT report. A search of his computer revealed inappropriate emails, and he was fired with little explanation on Jan. 3, 2012. Trembley was never charged with a crime.
Amid this drama, Walsh was making friends and flourishing in many ways at Tennessee, but he wasn’t satisfied with his performance in the pool.
“At first, this was all new to me and I didn’t understand much,” he said. “But as I got into my junior year, I was like, ‘I’m a better swimmer than I’ve been showing. Something must be going wrong.’ ”
Walsh credits Kredich, who was named head coach of the combined men’s and women’s programs after Trembley’s dismissal, with reviving his career and launching him into a successful senior season.
“He opened my eyes to what I could do in the pool,” Walsh said. “I never thought much in swimming, but he made you aware of every piece and part of your stroke.”
Walsh plans to begin “shadowing” Kredich and UT’s staff next season with the hope of eventually landing a full-time coaching gig in the college world.
“I think his philosophy is the next big thing in swimming,” he said.
Becoming a Man
Not everyone at Tennessee knows about his past, and Walsh hasn’t always been comfortable talking about it.
Walsh wasn’t certain that his mother Lorraine, who he said was a very private person, would be keen on this story. And even with the offer to discuss only his swimming career and nothing else, she declined through her son to be interviewed.
But Walsh said the close-knit group of friends at UT who know his life story have helped him confront parts of his past, big and small.
Once, after taking a small drink of beer at a party, Walsh immediately felt guilty.
“I never wanted to drink,” he said. “In England, the drinking age is much lower than it is here. But I never had a drop of alcohol.”
After the party, he called his mom. She said that he needn’t worry. He was not his dad.
“She said I’d become a man,” Walsh said, “and that she was proud of me.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee athletics. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.