Most swimmers are only focused on their next race. They eat, breathe and sleep swimming.
Chatham Dobbs is of another breed. He sees swimming and life through a different set of goggles.
That’s not to say that this senior isn’t one of the UA’s top sprinters or that he doesn’t take the sport seriously to put forward his best in every race, it’s just that his approach is well, a little unique. Which, actually, makes sense for a philosophy major.
“Part of what makes Chatham Chatham is that he is able to perceive things in a different dichotomy,” said UA assistant swimming coach Jesse Stipek. “It’s how his brain works to process swimming, life and academics and put them in different categories. A lot of athletes get so obsessed they forget why they are even swimming.
“Chatham has a lot more open-ended discoveries about what he’s looking for, instead of just black and white. What Chatham has figured out is that he is passionate about so many things.”
That doesn’t even sum up who Dobbs is — in or out of the pool. Stipek said there are a lot of “pieces to the puzzle” that make up Dobbs. He’s comfortable playing chess at a coffeehouse, delving into an academic book on philosophy, going to a lecture or being in the pool.
Dobbs likes to think of himself as double agent.
“No matter what setting I’m in, I have a secret identity up my sleeve. Who I am is not defined by the context I am in,” he said. “I value a lot that has nothing to do with swimming and the other way around. I make friends and later they find out I am a swimmer. It’s nice to always have something to yourself.”
It’s hard to know where to start with Dobbs, who describes himself as “curious, a little hyper, passionate, focused, and always searching for what’s next and trying to figure out the game of life.”
But let’s go with this: Dobbs led his University of Arizona teammates to a 16th-place finish at the NCAAs — just 11 points short of 10th — which wrapped up March 30 in Austin, Texas.
Dobbs earned a first-team All-American honor — his first, first team — in the 100 fly with a time of 45.39. He earned honorable mention in the 400 medley relay, 200 free relay. 200 medley relay and the 400 free relay.
He has thrived in UA coach Augie Busch’s culture of team over self and he understands that everything in practice has a purpose. He usually knows what Stipek or Busch is asking him to do, without either of them finishing the instructions.
For Dobbs, practice is fun — not the drag it can be for so many .
He’ll jump out of the pool and immediately say he wants to take on and beat Olympian Matt Grevers, who trains and is a volunteer coach at the UA and owns 33 medals in International competition in backstroke and freestyle.
And this isn’t just smack talk for Dobbs, who owns four top-10 times in UA history in the 50 freestyle, 100 fly, 100 back and 200 back.
Dobbs gets an edge from his fast-twitch and his heightened sense of body awareness — both of which are rare. The body awareness allows him to know how many strokes or kicks he needs to make and how fast to go.
What, exactly, is fast-twitch?
“It’s neurologically how it makes his muscles connect with his brain and spine; how the nerves move his muscles,” Busch said. “It makes him quicker, smoother and faster. He’s a great athlete outside the pool, too — how he runs. You watch his explosiveness. That makes him a unique talent.
“He has a supreme focus on all things he’s doing in the water. He notices if he’s not feeling right. He has a reference point with what great flow with the water is.”
One example of how Dobbs’ fast-twitch has helped him came in his senior year in high school. After multiple surgeries on his shoulders and not swimming or training for 18 months, he won the Tennessee state meet in the 50 free with a personal best time and a state record of 20.28.
Dobbs doesn’t really know how to explain what his fast-twitch feels like, as it’s always been there and he doesn’t know anything else.
“The ongoing joke with my (UA) teammates is ‘Oh Chatham could just skip practice for two weeks and swim a best time,’” said Dobbs. “I’m not sure how to answer what it’s like. It sounds cliché but you kind of feel in a natural habitat. You how what you are doing and how to navigate. It’s like running on grass is slower than running on pavement. I know what line is faster than another line. Ever since I was a kid I’ve know what is the natural movement for my body.”
Stipek has helped him manage this gift, as it can be tricky knowing when to use it and when to rest it. He focuses on having Dobbs listen to his body and not having him train too hard. If Dobbs does, it may take him longer to get ready for the next race.
“Matt Grevers has some fast-twitch, but it’s a little different than Chatham’s, which is extremely high,” said Stipek. “He needs to rest his muscles a little longer. He can go zero to 60 in the blink of an eye, but has to rest. If it gets past that point, it’s not beneficial.”
Those multiple surgeries in high school — he basically didn’t swim in his final two years — may be responsible for his perspective. Luckily, he committed early to the UA, as there was a point he thought his swimming career might be over before it even really got started.
“I came into a lot of qualities I carry now. There is a correlation. Had it not been for the injuries, I’m not sure how I would have turned out. I’ve always been a curious person. I like to engage with a lot of different content and materials. I don’t take a lot of time thinking about swimming. Although, leading up to a meet, I am hyper-focused then.”
Busch has coached them all, from Type A personalities to surfer dudes and now Dobbs, who turned out to be a mix of philosopher and fierce competitor.
“He loves competition and competing with a bunch of guys — his brothers,” Busch said. “This is what he cherishes the most. Even though he can be sort of a free spirit guy like that with philosophy, when he’s at practice and meets, it’s all about his brotherhood and being a cohesive unit in the pool.”