by Jon Cooper | The Good Word
To paraphrase an old expression: “You can lead a boy to water but you can’t make him swim.”
That’s especially true if that boy is growing up in Brazil, where everyone plays soccer.
Caio Pumputis was like everyone else...until he was led to the pool.
“I started playing soccer, like every child in Brazil, but I wanted to do something that was all me,” said the São Paulo native. “If I fail, I fail by myself. If I win, I win by myself. When you race, it’s all you. So I wanted to do something that’s all me. Swimming was one of the sports that I found that was really good for me.”
It actually wasn’t too tough a sell, considering his mother, Flávia Andréa Rodrigues Pumputis, was a swimmer and his father, Mauricio Pumputis, played water polo.
“Both are related to water so I started swimming because my parents went to the pool every day. So I started swimming with them,” Pumputis said. “The coach saw me and he talked with my parents -- ‘Your son is really good. I’d really like him on our team to practice more.’
“He was like, ‘We have a team and we practice Monday through Saturday,’” he added. “My parents were like, ‘Oh, but he plays soccer Tuesday and Thursday and he has games on Saturdays.’ So I started practicing three times a week. Then, when I improved my times a lot I was like, ‘Hey, dad, I want to swim. I don’t want to play soccer anymore.’ Then I started practicing six times a week for like two hours.’”
All that work has paid off. Swimming with the Esporte Clube Pinheiros team in São Paulo, Brazil, he was ranked as high as the No. 18 recruit in the high school class of 2017 by CollegeSwimming.com and competed for Brazil in the 6th FINA World Junior Championships last August, swimming individually in both the 200 individual medley relay and 100 breaststroke events, then as part of the 4x100 medley relay team, and anchoring in the 4x200 meter freestyle.
When he chose to come to Georgia Tech, he was not your average freshman. He was battle-tested.
“He had a great summer competing in the World Junior Championships and had a great meet there and came into Georgia Tech ready to go,” said Georgia Tech swimming and diving head coach Courtney Shealy Hart. “I know he’s working hard both in and out of the pool. He did a great job academically freshman semester, which is always great to see.”
Pumputis can see the finish line to his freshman year and is ready to put on his finishing kick, with his sights set on the ACC Championships at the Greensboro Aquatic Center, in Greensboro, N.C., then, ideally at the following month’s NCAA’s at the University Aquatic Center in Minneapolis.
It’s the culmination of what Coach Hart calls “Championship Season.” It also could describe his entire freshman campaign at Georgia Tech.
Pumputis heads into the ACC’s, having put up the Yellow Jackets’ top times in the 200 freestyle (1:36.12), 200 breaststroke (1:53.80), and in both the 200 and 400 individual medley (1:45.68 and 3:50.36) events. He’s also played a major role in the 200, 400, and 800 freestyle and 200 IM relays.
“It’s been so cool,” he said. “I wasn’t expected to swim fast in my freshman year. I spoke to my friends in Brazil because I have a lot of friends here studying in the U.S. and most of them told me, ‘Oh, it’s so hard to make NCAAs, to swim fast your first year because you have to adapt yourself to new practice, new coach, school and all other kinds of stuff.’”
Pumputis would actually appreciate his friends, coaches, and anyone within earshot to keep telling him what he can’t do.
“I like when people say, ‘It’s hard to do that,’ or ‘Maybe you cannot do that,’” he said, breaking into an easy smile. “It makes me feel strong to keep doing it and prove to them that I can do it. I have had new experiences, short time to adapt myself and prove myself that I’m ready to surpass not difficult, but new situations that I’m not familiar with. So it’s been awesome.”
Hart never told Caio he couldn’t do anything but admitted she’s pleasantly surprised at how he has responded to challenges.
“You never know with that transition from high school to freshman year in college, both domestically and internationally, there can be big changes so you hope that they’re going to do really well,” she said. “I think he’s kind of exceeded expectations. He got a 3.4 GPA (he’s a business administration major), but also what he’s done in the pool so far. He’s a leader in the pool for us. He works really hard. I think he enjoys doing it. You can see that he has fun. You can see that and I think that rubs off on other people. I think our team sees how the hard work is paying off for him and it’s a big encouragement for a lot of people.”
Pumputis admits that he’s been just as influenced by his teammates. He especially points to senior Moises Loschi, who is the only Yellow Jacket to swim faster at the 100 breast this year than his 54:45 (which is seventh all-time in school history) and the only person ever in program history to swim a faster 200 breast time than Pumputis’ 1.53.80 this season (he’s .72 behind the record).
“When you have someone faster than you, of course you want to beat him so we’re always trying to beat each other and prove, ‘I’m faster.’ It’s real good,” Pumputis said. “When we have team practices or breaststroke practices we’re always together. So it’s really good because his time is faster than mine so he beats me a lot. But it’s good to push myself. I really like it. Sometimes I beat him. It’s competition in the water but out of the water we are friends.”
Pumputis ranks in the school’s top-10 in 12 different official events this season, yet it’s the one UNOFFICIAL event that may be the most impressive.
In the Jan. 27 Senior Day meet against Emory at McAuley Aquatic Center, Pumputis swam the 100-yard IM in a time of 48.86. According to SwimSwam.com, it marked only the 11th time in history that an NCAA male swimmer finished the event in less than 49 seconds.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he recalled. “I was talking with my coach the day before when we had weights. I was like, ‘How fast do you think that I can go in the 100 IM?’ He was like, ‘If you go 49 that would be awesome.’ I just swam fast. When I touched the wall and saw 48, I was like, ‘Holy (Cow!)!’ My friends were yelling in our pool. It was really good and the experience was awesome, too.”
Even more awesome was that the time put him in the company of 23-time Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps, who has done the 100 IM in 48.40.
“When I was asking my coach about how fast I can go he was like, ‘Oh, Michael Phelps’ best time is 47-something.’ I was like, ‘That would be fun,’” he said, adding with a laugh, “After the race I was like, ‘I’m going to send a video to ‘SwimSwam’ because it was really fast.”
Pumputis hopes to have more material to send to SwimSwam after the ACC Championships. He’s also hoping to improve on his NCAA B qualifying times in the 200 free, 100 breast, 200 breast, 200 IM and 400 IM. He sees the ACCs as the perfect venue.
“I talked with my coach and we felt we’re not sure (we’ve qualified for NCAAs) yet so our focus is to swim fast in the ACCs,” he said. “I have to swim fast first in the ACCs then afterward we can think of NCAAs.
“I know that people have only known me a short period of time,” he added. “I want to prove to them that I also can swim fast and I can beat them.”