by Casey Barrett
NEW YORK, April 2. HE stands six-eight in bare bronzed feet the size of small boats. His hands are larger than Lebron's and rumored to be webbed between each finger. His flexibility could make a yogi blush. He has spent most of his waking life immersed in salt water. His name is Siddhartha Belau. He is 20-years-old and he is a better swimmer than Michael Phelps. Unless you're from a slim string of pearls called the Palau islands, in the South Pacific, you've likely never heard of him.
I didn't believe it either. When stories of this young man first reached me, I discounted them as colorful fantasy. Things like this sometimes reach your Inbox when you write a blog like this one. Consider it the swimmer's version of fish tales. Fabulist folks come lurking out of the depths with absurd stories of impossible speed and grace in the water. I heard one about a 15-year-old boy from Perth who was said to have clocked 45 seconds in the 100 meter free. Turned out the pool was 45 meters long. Heard another about a 12-year-old Amazonian girl from Argentina who was rumored to go 8:08 in the 800. Typo; it was 9:08. The stories about Belau were equally dubious at first blush, but there was something more there. The reports started to add up, from various verified sources. His legend is just reaching these shores. Soon the world will know him.
I believe Siddhartha Belau is real. And that he has broken 20 seconds in the 50 meter freestyle. Long course. He first learned butterfly at the advanced age of 14, but it's reported that he's already been 51.3 in the 100 / 1:52.6 in the 200. One of his coaches insists that he would beat Lochte in the 200 IM at Worlds this summer, if only he could make it there.
“The boy has never left the islands of Palau,” says the coach, who wishes to remain anonymous. “He is deathly afraid of airplanes, he will never agree to fly. You must understand — he lives in paradise and has no wish to leave.”
Another source wrote that: “Sid is a very simple boy, very pure of heart. He spends his days in the water, only emerging to eat the fish that he has speared. I do not think he has ever spent less than eight hours in the water, any day of his life. He is dry only when he sleeps.”
Indeed, it appears that getting Belau to race at all was something of a challenge. Fellow Palauans have spread tales of their Aquaman since he was a child. There are stories of little Siddhartha swimming ten meters deep and catching lobster with his bare hands when he was three years old. Other islanders speak of young Sid body-surfacing alongside dolphin in the island's high clean surf. But when it came to racing up and down the pool, Belau was uninterested.
“I literally had to beg him to try swimming in the pool,” says the coach. “Sid couldn't see the point. Palau has just one 50-meter pool and it is not well used. Why bother with a pool when you have the beautiful Pacific all around you? But there was a group of us, we knew what we were seeing. We knew that the only way the rest of the world would believe us is if we put the boy in the pool, and timed him at the distances you folks care about.”
Belau may have expressed reluctance at first, but it appears he soon found an affinity for the still waveless waters of the pool. “Sid says he likes the meditative aspect of pool swimming,” reports a friend named Ohana. “He loves to race against the clock, and hear what kinds of records he would have set, but he finds things like the Olympics funny. He feels no need to prove himself in those arenas.”
Why not? I wrote that back to all of them, the kind Palauans who've taken to emailing me over these last few months. How could Siddhartha Belau not care about showing the rest of the world what he can do? His friend Ohana may have summed up the Palauan sentiment best: “Because you care, does not mean he must.”
I've considered getting on a plane and finding out for myself. The invitation is there. I've asked them to send videos, something that can prove these outrageous claims. They're working on it, but this is one corner of the world where lives do not revolve around iPhones or YouTube. They say they'll have something for me soon, but on Palau-time, soon is a relative concept.
So, in the absence of evidence, I went looking for something else to back up my growing irrational faith in this elusive swim god. It turns out there might be some theories to support the likelihood of such a man. We all know the stories of Kenyan runners. The Olympic world has long pondered the question — what makes Kenyans such brilliant distance runners? Turns out there are some very good scientific reasons for their running supremacy. It's a potent mixture of genes and culture. Here's a great piece in the Atlantic that breaks down the Kenyan's special sauce.
By that rationale Kenyan runners have an awful lot in common with swimmers in the South Pacific. Just as Kenyans perfected the art of running through genetic evolution and a culture of running long ways on the open African plains, these South Pacific swimmers may have developed as the most water-evolved people on the planet. It's not so far fetched. Much has been made about Michael Phelps's upbringing, where he watched his older sisters training when he was just a boy, absorbing the sport through chlorinated osmosis on the pool deck. Well, what about upbringings like Siddhartha Belau's? A boy who was raised not on a pool deck in Baltimore, but in the clear cool waters of the South Pacific? A kid who was catching his lunch with his bare hands in 40-foot waters when he was barely out of diapers… A kid who learned his feel for the water by body-surfing with dolphin…
“He's the greatest swimmer you've never seen,” says his coach.
But do you really need to see to believe?
Casey Barrett is the founder of both swim-based blog capandgoggles.com and New York based swim school Imagine Swim.