Rory Buck lost something that once had been an integral part of his life. He traveled halfway around the world to get it back.
After spending much of his life competing in swimming venues around the African continent, Buck now is a sophomore at Whitworth and a big part of the Pirates’ hunt for an eighth consecutive Northwest Conference championship.
The Whitworth men, who have rolled up 71 consecutive NWC dual-meet victories, can build on their dynasty at the Northwest Conference championships Friday through Sunday at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way, Wash. The Pirates women are attempting to dethrone defending champion Puget Sound.
Buck’s time of 2 minutes, 3.1 seconds in the 200-yard breaststroke ranks as the fastest time nationally in NCAA Division III this year. Coincidentally, he posted that time in Federal Way in December at the same site as this weekend’s events. Buck also is the favorite in the 100 breaststroke, where his top time of 57.34 is an NWC-best and ranks 10th nationally.
Those are considerable feats for someone who mulled whether he wanted to continue his swimming career at all just 2 years ago.
Born in South Africa, Buck was 9 when his parents moved their family to Malawi, a narrow, landlocked country in southeastern Africa still finding its way in the world after seizing independence from British rule in 1964. A country of 15 million inhabitants, Malawi suffers from an elevated infant mortality rate (89 deaths per 1,000 live births) and low life expectancy (50 years). Like much of Africa, the underdeveloped nation is plagued by widespread HIV/AIDS.
“Malawi is run by agriculture,” Buck said. “Coffee, tobacco and tea drive the country. The two big cities (Blantyre and Lilongwe) are developing pretty quickly. That’s why my father moved there. He works for a construction company.
“Shopping centers, banks – they’re coming up. But Malawi is still very reliant on the agriculture sector. The agriculture sector is not the same as it is here. They’re very dependent on the weather and the amount of rain they get.”
It would be unlikely he could duplicate his experiences in this country, too.
“What Malawi has going for it I’ll be forever grateful,” Buck said. “It’s a very transient society and multicultural society. We had 52 nationalities represented at my high school. … To this day there are no movie theaters, no bowling alleys. What you rely on for entertainment is the people. People are what make the country. The people is what I miss the most.”
Buck graduated from St. Andrews International School in Blantyre, and his family uprooted and moved to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf. Dubai and Malawi share little in common, Buck said.
“Dubai is like Vegas on steroids,” he said of the city – home to the world’s tallest skyscraper and a number of other architectural achievements. “The downside to Dubai is there is more of a focus on you. People are there to make money, and they want to live that lifestyle. … It’s difficult to find good social circles in Dubai.”
Buck returned to South Africa with his goals set on earning a roster spot on that country’s Olympic team for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. It also required another cultural adjustment. Black Africans compose nearly 80 percent of the country’s 50 million residents, but South Africa still contends with racism and discrimination issues even after the rule of Nelson Mandela ended more than 10 years ago.
“Once people my age get into power, things will start to change again,” Buck said. “They still don’t have the influence of a Nelson Mandela or a leader like that. As 22-, 23-year-olds get into those positions (of influence), you’ll see the ball start rolling faster.”
Buck, who also excels in swimming’s freestyle sprints, began working on his Olympic bid after graduating high school. He reconnected with a former coach running an Olympic developmental program in South Africa. Then, in 2006, his career was derailed by a serious groin injury.
“I went through two surgeries on my groin region,” Buck said, attributing the injury to too much training. “It took 13 months to recover. … I went to the (Olympic trials) in 2008, but it didn’t go quite as planned. I finished 21st in the 200 breaststroke, if I remember right.”
Buck, then 22, faced a choice of reloading for another run at the 2012 Summer Olympics or finding an alternative plan.
“I wanted to reassess everything,” he said. “When you’ve been bitten by the Olympic bug, it never goes away. But another thought that came to me was that I’d be 26 and not have a degree. I just thought, ‘If something happens, what do I do?’ ”
Buck’s brother, Damon, ultimately offered a solution. Buck’s mother, Alison, was a foreign exchange student in high school living with extended family in Salem, Ore. The Buck family made several trips to the United States over the years to visit relatives.
Damon visited Whitworth during one of those vacations and determined it was where he wanted to earn his college degree.
Damon’s older brother was not far behind.
“Swimming became kind of a job, and I wasn’t enjoying it,” Buck said. “I was in the pool from 5 to 7:30 every morning and from 3 to 8:30 every night. It started getting a little overwhelming, and I started to lose my love for the sport a little bit. After the (Olympic) trials, I decided I wanted to go back and study. I always wanted to study in the U.S.”
Buck found an ideal situation at Whitworth, which satisfied his educational pursuits in kinesiology and business management. The Pirates’ successful swimming program, meanwhile, rekindled his competitive fire.
“It all fit perfectly,” he said. “You’re swimming in a competitive environment, but at Division III, where you can be competitive but still take the edge off. You’re not competing for money. Your school work has as much emphasis as your swim work. That really appealed to me.”
Whitworth assistant coach Gary Kessie acknowledged Buck wasn’t a typical freshman. He was 22 and more developed physically and emotionally, Kessie said. Buck’s swimming – and life – experiences internationally shaped him inside and outside the pool.
“There was a little more maturity, leadership,” Kessie said. “He was a take-charge leader from the get-go, and that’s nice to have from an underclassman. A lot of it is his talent level, and others look up to that. He has experience at the international level and competed at a big-time level. He’s been there, he knows what to do and what’s expected.”
Buck still has work to do in the pool, though. Races in America are distanced by yards, not meters. He also is adjusting to short-course swimming, where the pool length (25 yards) is half that of Olympic pools. Instead of making one turn in a 100-meter race, short-course swimmers make three. Keeping his strokes in rhythm and transitioning through the turns are works in progress, Buck said.
Kessie said Buck’s physical tools help him compensate for any technical shortcomings, however.
“He’s built like a swimmer – big, tall and bulky but with lean muscle,” Kessie said. “He’s knowledgeable about what to do with his body. He’s a very good student.”
Buck wasn’t sure if he consciously embraced a leadership role, but he agreed it came naturally. His lifelong experience dealing with people of myriad backgrounds has served him well.
“There are cultural differences, sure, from where I’ve been,” Buck said. “When you’re in the pool, you’re doing your job and working hard. That’s the same whether you’re here, in Dubai or in South Africa. Anybody who puts in hard work gets respect. People are still people, whether or not their cultures are different.”