This article appears in the Jan/Feb 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
St. Thomas Aquinas senior Bradley Ally received a teasing phone call from his father after the first day of the Florida state swimming championships this past November.
Ally (pronounced al-lee) had exited the University of Florida pool in Gainesville following the preliminary rounds having set a new state record in the 100-yard breaststroke and having ripped off a time of 1:49.51 in the 200-yard individual medley, besting his 2003 state-title-winning time by a gaping two-tenths of a second.
So dad issued a little good-natured challenge.
"His father congratulated him on his swims, but then he said he wasn't going to make the drive from Fort Lauderdale to see the finals," says St. Thomas Aquinas swimming coach Alex Pussieldi. "He said he wasn't coming unless his son could promise he'd swim even faster in the 100 breast and under 1:49 in the IM. Bradley paused on the other end of the line and said, ‘You can come then.'"
Such is the unencumbered bravado of Bradley Ally, the reigning two-time Class 3A state champion in the 200-yard individual medley, having shattered a 10-year-old national high school record in the event by swimming a 1:46.31 at November's state finals.
Ally has a brilliant future in front of him, as illustrated by the fact that he toed the blocks last summer in Athens as a member of the Barbados Olympic team. But it's the manner in which he keeps his flashy past in perspective that may be his most impressive attribute.
"You know what I was struck by being around the Olympic Village in Athens?" asks the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Ally, who turned 18 on Dec. 11. "I'd walk in the cafeteria and see Maurice Greene or Andy Roddick and I'd realize these people are just normal human beings. It gave me a sense of confidence. We see these people on the big stage in the big show and we think they're aliens or something. I can tell you for certain, they're not."
Of course, we can't say the same with the same certainty about Ally. Since qualifying for the Olympic team of his native Barbados as a 16-year-old during the 2003 Pan American Games, Ally hasn't looked particularly mortal.
He followed up his impressive finishes of 23rd (200-meter IM, 2:03.29) and 25th (400-meter IM, 4:24.70) in Athens by annihilating the national scholastic record in the 200-yard IM, touching the wall in 1:46.31 to outdistance the old mark of 1:46.90 by an astounding 0.59 seconds. If swimming had a mercy rule, that margin would have invoked it.
And the kid is not nearly done. Before beginning his collegiate career at the University of Florida on a full swim scholarship, Ally will compete at the 2005 FINA World Cup in New York and Brazil this February and the 2005 FINA World Championships in Montreal this July.
That's a remarkable resume for a guy who didn't arrive in the U.S. until the summer before his freshman year and who was dashing around the palm trees of St. George Parish in Barbados just four years ago.
Perhaps even cooler is Ally's primary motivation. Winning? That's up there. The spirit of competition? A big factor, for sure. But Ally is determined to help swimming gain a more prominent place in the sports hierarchy.
"I would really like swimming to be one of the top sports in the world," says Ally, who led St. Thomas to its eighth straight team state title this past fall by winning the 200 IM and 100 breaststroke. "No one really knows it. I'd like it to be noticed. The athletes work so hard, a little attention might be nice. The problem is, not a lot of people have ever swum competitively, so they don't understand the demands and excitement. Maybe I can help."
So far, so good. Not that Ally sees it that way. He was profoundly disappointed with his inability to finish in the top 16 during preliminary heats at the Olympics, thereby failing to advance to the semifinals.
"You've got to understand, he's always looking for more," says Pussieldi, 39, a former long-distance freestyler in Brazil and the five-time coach of that country's junior national team before coming to the U.S. in 1999. "His performance in Athens was good, but he wasn't pleased. When he was 15, he was the No. 1-ranked 200 IM guy in his age group. This national record he just swam wasn't an accident. It's something we sat down and talked about with his club coach, Jack Nelson, a year and a half ago. We put a plan together, and he executed it."
It's hard to overstate Ally's competitive nature. Right down to the event he chose as his specialty.
"The individual medley is very complicated, and it's different from all the others in swimming," says Ally. "If you ask me, the two hardest events in this sport are the 1,500-meter free and the 400 IM. There are no transitional strokes in the IM. You have to go from one right to the other, and you have to spend a lot of time underwater."
Ask Ally what his weakest of the four strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle) in the event is and you get a sense of just how hard he is on himself. He says it's the breaststroke. That'd be the event in which he set a state record and won a state title this past fall.
Incidentally, Ally also owns 47 regional age-group swimming records as maintained by Florida Gold Coast Swimming, the local governing body for competitive swimming in the counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe.
More stunning than all the numbers, however, is Ally's ability to remain unwaveringly down to earth despite being obsessively self-motivated to achieve.
"All I can say is, I'm just a normal guy," he insists. "I'm happy to talk to anyone. I don't think I'm bigger or better than anyone. I just reserve the right to swim like a beast when I'm in the pool."