AUSTIN — From an outsider's perspective, it could be easy to think the pathway from a swimmer's first dive to their ascension to the top of an awards podium is mere child play or something born of DNA or natural talent.
That line of thinking, however, couldn't be further from the truth.
To say Levi David's road to national acclaim and a state swimming title has been laden with strife, sacrifice and dedication, would be an understatement.
If you ask him, though, the early mornings, strict diet and years of preparation all seemed worth it standing atop the medal podium — and Texas — during Saturday's UIL State Swim Championships at the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swim Center.
"I would say it's a relief, but it's more than that. It's hard to put into words — a combination of excitement, relief and thankfulness for every person who helped get me here," Levi said, pausing to smile as his piercing blue eyes bored holes through the water at the University of Texas at Austin's Olympic-regulation pool.
Levi reached over and double-hugged Hailey and Hope David. To the boy towering over the girls, the pair weren't only his sisters and former and current Indian swimmers, they were also two of his biggest supporters.
"God blessed me with the ability, showed me the plan and gave me the will to execute it," he continued. "When you chase something for that long and it finally happens, it's the greatest feeling you can have and it kind of blows your mind."
A shiny gold trophy branded with the acronym "UIL" dangled loosely from his neck and made an audible thump as it banged against the abdomen and ribcage of the fastest 50-yard freestyle swimmer in the Lone Star State.
His glistening chunk of swim history is the only one in Waxahachie. It's also the first state championship in any sport since Lesli Priebe and her 4A Lady Indians "walked on air" in 2006.
Unlike basketball, where the collective can mask the shortcomings of a few, the icy depths of the pool pits man against nature and singular will against unrelenting unpredictability. A year earlier, too, Levi was less than a second shy from feeling her cold metallic chill against his skin.
Three-tenths of a second to be exact — the same amount of time it took for Patrick Ewing and New York Knicks to beat Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls on January 15, 1990 and lay the framework for the Trent Tucker Rule's birth. Much like the way the rule reformed how professional basketball games can be concluded, Levi's momentary failure changed how his swimming career ended.
"I think it was about his sophomore year the mindset set in and he got the focus and set himself toward the goal. He went after it and got it. I've never seen anybody have the work ethic and the drive to work and finish the job like him," said Tamara Pruitt, Waxahachie's head swim coach.
She hurriedly shuffled scoresheets and schedules while staring at the pool's digital scoreboard and waiting for the team's final event —the 200-yard relay — to begin, but whirled around to comment as if she'd forgotten a critical piece of the equation.
"His older sister swam for me and he would come to the meets. They told me he was good. He swam some pretty good times and anchored our relays, but he was nowhere near the swimmer he is now," Pruitt continued. "About the middle of last season, he started posting some really good times and told him going into the district and regional meets in Frisco the hardest region in the state — that he could do this now and that he could be a state champion."
Despite breaking numerous pool and school records — both individually and with Nick Cooper, Max Gus and Garrett Penny — 2016 wasn't his time. Levi, a multi-sport athlete, would have to wait at least nine months and avoid season-ending injury to begin to speculate whether returning to Austin was a reality.
Losses can do one of two of things. They can either inspire failure or phoenix-like resurrection. From the moment Levi stepped out of the pool 12 months ago, the former wasn't an option.
The latter was like holy scripture. Rather than wallow in defeat, David decided to roll up his sleeves and work toward success.
"Levi David's been training since he was eight years old for this precise moment," he said speaking in third person as he cataloged the rigorous and almost impossible daily schedule of a 5A state champion. "He gets up at 5:45 a.m. every morning, makes his way to swim practice, goes to school, then baseball practice, goes back to the pool and then does homework and goes to bed. He gets a lift session in at least four times a week on top of running. It's hard to capture the amount of time and work that goes into the 20.2 seconds that can win a state championship. It's minutes, hours, days, months and years. It's your life put into 20 seconds of a race."
Some men and women, though, saw the lithe and sinewy 6-foot-2 teenager as a larger-than life-talent when he was a budding preteen still searching to find his stroke. Jason Chagnon, who swam with Levi's uncle and started the Waxahachie youth swim program 1995, as well as his former wife Amy Sisler, were witness to the 11-year-old brazenly winning medals yet behaving as humble as if he'd never won one before.
The pair coached Hailey, Levi and Hope when they were younger.
"He was a fast 11-year-old and has always had a good grip on the water, but he's always had a better work ethic," Chagnon said. "When I met him he was a lot like his dad — blue-collar and hard-working. When he won I wasn't even surprised. I run the LISD Aquatic Center in The Colony and he swam with us around Christmas and I can remember thinking that we knew he was going to win. This is what we do for a living. When you get a kid like Levi that comes in and goes 20-point midseason and he swims 5A, there's not a lot of contenders that fast in that classification.
"The thing that makes Levi special is his mindset. It's not just what he does outside of the pool. It's also what he does out of it. It's working the fast-twitch muscle and put the time in the water. You have to be dedicated and focused."
As his swan song, Levi finished the meet as the fifth-best 100-yard freestyle swimmer in the state and helped Cooper, Gus and fellow senior Brice Bishop place seventh in the 200-yard relay with a 1:28.75 finish — a new WHS record — despite being seeded eighth. Waxahachie's boys finished No. 14 out of the 96 teams represented at the state meet.
Though the medal was the highlight of the evening, it wasn't the coup de grace. That honor was reserved ruining of the diet he's held steady for more than six months.
Well, that and the off-the-menu quintuple-stacked Steak 'n Shake mega burger he's been craving.
"I'm definitely going to get a chocolate bar and a milkshake. I'll tell you that," Levi said with a chuckle. "I've been saving up for six months off of sweets, so I'm feeling a T-bone, a brownie, a milkshake and a candy bar right now. And you better believe the burger's getting eaten, too."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.