Tommy Seay thought he was a pretty good swimmer when he was in elementary school, winning all of his races against other Buffalo kids. Then one day, in sixth grade, his teacher arranged for him to race a girl in the 20-yard butterfly. He lost.
Stunned, he asked the girl how she had become so fast. She said she was on a club team called the Cazenovia Sea Lions. Seay raced home after school and told his mother about his discovery.
"Mom, this girl swims on this special team," he said. "Can I go, too?"
"Why would you want to do that?" replied Suzi Seay, who had no clue about club swimming. "I don't know South Buffalo at all. We'll probably get lost. And we did. We were a half hour late because we were circling around the Ford stamping plant."
She eventually found the Cazenovia pool, and a city boy found his new passion for competitive swimming. A man named Ed Cudmore took Seay onto the team, and things took off from there. Soon he was swimming for a club in Cheektowaga. Later, he moved on to the South Towns Aquatic Racers (STAR).
There was no stopping him. Seay, a senior at McKinley High, became the most successful swimmer in Buffalo high school history. He hasn't been beaten in an individual Syracuse Cup race since his freshman year. He owns eight city records.
This season, he has Western New York's fastest time in three events - the 100 freestyle, 100 breaststroke and 200 individual medley - and is ranked in the top four in four other events. On Saturday, he can become the first city high school swimmer in recent memory to capture a title in the Section VI championships at the Flickinger Aquatic Center.
Seay is an African-American who has risen to the top of a sport typically dominated by whites. He's a role model for young minority swimmers, proof that with hard work, supportive parents and good coaching, anything is possible.
"He's definitely a leader by example," said McKinley coach Marty Gregory. "At the Niagara-Orleans (Buffalo Public Schools vs. Niagara-Orleans League) meet, the kids from Hutch-Tech were getting autographs from him. He's a tremendous role model for kids who swim in the city. They see him as their representative, our guy who is going to do well."
It's rare for any city swimmer to excel at the sectional level nowadays. No one involved with high school swimming could remember the last time a city kid won at sectionals. Jeff Banks, the Section VI swim chairman, said it has probably been more than 20 years. (The city girls swim in the winter with the boys, and therefore don't compete in the girls sectionals, which are in the fall).
Seay has a decent shot in the states in the 50 and 100 freestyles, for which he's already qualified. Earlier this week, he was accepted to Ohio State, where he will compete as a non-scholarship freshman. He was offered several full rides by Division II schools, but he wants to pursue the bigger challenge. His parents, Suzi and Tom Sr., want that, too.
"Everybody here says don't send him anywhere but Division I," Suzi said. "They say his freshman year will be difficult and he'll have the fight of his life. But when he gets past that, he's going to have a glorious ride his next three years."
The Ohio State coaches told Seay he has vast room for improvement. He has never done any weight training. Banks said Seay is fairly raw, but has a perfect swimmer's build - tall and lean with big hands and feet. He said a college regimen will do wonders for him. That's what Tommy thinks, too.
"I'll be the underdog my freshman year," Seay said. "I know it'll take me a couple of years to get up to the competition level, but I'm prepared for it. The weightlifting will help me in my sprinting. It's not like I'm going in there thinking I'm The Man."
He's certainly The Man to an ever-growing legion of city kids, most of them minorities, who have been turning to swimming in increasing numbers.
Mike Switalski runs the Buffalo Schools Swim Racers, a team geared toward disadvantaged city kids who can't afford conventional swim clubs. The club, which is funded by the Mayor's Community Schools Project, Erie County and local businesses, pays all the basic expenses for the swimmers.
USA Swimming, which is committed to getting more minorities involved in the sport, identified the Racers as one of the nation's model urban programs. Two summers ago, they invited Seay and Switalski to visit the U.S. Olympic Academy in Colorado Spring.
"They were looking for people who could spread the Olympic dream," Seay said. "They want you to make a difference in the sport. They want people to know it's not just about winning gold medals. Each mentor had to do something to make a difference in the community. It was called passing the torch."
So Seay came home that summer and worked with the kids in Switalski's program. He went into the pool with them, worked on their strokes, talked to them about the dream. It is a long way off, but he believes the enhanced training in college will eventually help him swim times that are good enough for the Olympic Trials.
Imagine that, an African-American from Buffalo's East Side, dreaming about swimming in the Olympics. Seay has a brother in the eighth grade, Michael, who could be even better. A lot more city kids are allowing themselves to dream. Switalski had 100 swimmers at two locations when the Racers were formed in 1998. Now the program serves 270, about 85 percent of them minorities, at nine schools.
Chances are, one of them is the next Tommy Seay. Maybe three or four of them will one day go after his eight city records. Gregory did the math and determined that Seay broke 167 years worth of records in his time at McKinley. He's not sure he wants them to last that long again.
"On one hand, I want them to last forever," Seay said. "But it would be cool if someone else did, because it would mean another swimmer came along in the city and started a whole new era."