Arizona wasn't going to recruit Kevin Steel because, frankly, he wasn't among the nation's pool of elite swimmers. He wasn't even close.

Ohio State and Penn State wanted Steel, but Ohio State and Penn State are not NCAA swimming powers. Most would have taken the Buckeyes' scholarship money and forgotten about the faraway school in the desert.

But Steel persisted. He was going to be a Wildcat. His late grandfather, Merritt R. Nelson, who for 42 years held a place of prominence in the UA Plant Pathology department, was a Tucson scientist studying cacti and cotton and everything relevant to desert plant life.

If there is such a thing as a swimmer-made-for-Arizona in Moorestown, N.J., it was Kevin Steel. His mother, Terry, is a UA grad, and Kevin was baptized in the Catalina foothills.

"We thought Kevin could someday be awesome, but I also thought it would be a year or two before he saw the light of day at Arizona," says Peter Holcroft, coach of the South Jersey Aquatic Club. "It was going to require a lot of mental toughness for him to stick with it."

Steel got the attention of former UA coach Frank Busch with a calculated approach.

"My sales pitch was, 'Hey, I dropped 12 seconds in the 100 (breast stroke) in one year,'" Steel says now, smiling. "It got Frank's attention."

And it should have. Any teenage swimmer who cuts 12 seconds off a career best in that short period, and especially one who is 6 feet 3 inches and, as UA coach Eric Hansen says, "is an exceptional athlete, a racehorse, who has a basketball player's vertical jump," turns a coach's head.

It's like a baseball pitcher improving his velocity from 83 mph to 93 mph in one year.

"Frank offered me books, that was my scholarship," says Steel. "The odds of me ever being here weren't very good."

So consider the odds of Kevin Steel becoming the U.S. Open record holder and USA national champion in the 50-meter breast stroke. Consider the long shot it was for him to dress in Team USA gear and get on a plane next Tuesday, bound for the World Championships in Barcelona, Spain.

It's not the Camden YMCA any more.

Steel was one of just four swimmers in the mostly deserted Hillenbrand Aquatic Center on Monday afternoon. It was a virtual Who's Who of American Swimming 2013.

Matt Grevers, a multiple Olympic gold medalist, was there. Christine Magnuson, who wears a hip tattoo from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was in the lane next to Steel. And you couldn't miss UA junior Kevin Cordes, the fastest breast-stroker in American history.

If you are in that company, four Team USA World Championship swimmers, led by one of its coaches, you have arrived.

Steel beat Cordes, the NCAA men's swimmer of the year, by .12 of a second to win the 50-meter final; Cordes won both the 100 and 200 finals.

You might imagine that having someone of Cordes' stature in your face every day might either break you or help make you better. It was an athlete's predicament that Steel had to absorb and overcome.

"I didn't make our NCAA team as a freshman, but I made progress, and I thought 'All right, one day it'll be my time,'" says Steel. "And then this freshman Boy Wonder comes in out of nowhere, and his times put me to shame. It was very sobering, sometimes depressing.

"I was in a negative place."

In the spring of 2012, after again failing to make the UA contingent to the NCAA finals, as Cordes emerged as the nation's top college breast-stroker, Steel considered walking away from swimming altogether.

Ultimately, he chose to work through his frustration and not quit. "I knew I had more in me," he says. "The fear of someday looking back and regretting that I quit really fueled me to get back in swimming with all I had."

A few months later, Steel finished second, an All-American, in the NCAA 100 breast. And on June 27 in Indianapolis, he stood on the winner's platform, a national champion, having recorded the 15th-fastest in the swimming history.

His old Jersey coach, Holcroft, all but called it.

"I can see them coming from pretty far away, and Kevin was texting me during the NCAAs saying, 'I'm ready to swim fast,'" says Holcroft. "But you really can't expect a national championship that quickly. That's his mental toughness."

For the past decade, Tucson has been America's most prolific training ground for breast-strokers, including Olympians Amanda Beard, Clark Burckle and All-Americans Marcus Titus, Annie Chandler, Ellyn Baumgardner, Dave Rollins, Jack Brown, Carl Mickelson, Cordes and Steel.

Steel might be the most unlikely of the group.

"The fun thing about this sport is that it doesn't matter where you come from," he says. "Now I can say I'm a swimmer from Arizona."

Contact Greg Hansen at or 573-4362. On Twitter @ghansen711