Tom Kremer had already made a name for himself in recent years as an elite swimmer in local circles, winning multiple club and high school titles, and recently bursting onto the international scene.
But it was during a brief exchange with a few 10-year-old kids at last month’s Santa Clara International Grand Prix in which the adoring youths asked him for autographs and gave him cookies that signaled Kremer’s transition from a budding swimming sensation to budding swimming celebrity.
“You should have seen how many kids were out there cheering, ‘Go Tom! Go Tom!,’” said Abi Liu, his PEAK club swimming coach.
“It was pretty flattering actually,” Kremer said. “I actually thought it was a little funny because I wasn’t even doing that great at the swim meet.”
Not “doing that great” is relative of course, and that Kremer would say that after in a field that included Michael Phelps speaks volumes about his career trajectory.
It was just four years ago that Kremer was a talented but unremarkable youth swimmer, medaling in but never winning races in his 12-and-under age group.
He turned the corner at 14, when second- and third-place finishes started turning into championships. He went on to dominate the club circuit and become at Sacred Heart Prep, where he’ll be a senior next year.
Now he’s on the brink of what just two years ago was completely unthinkable, with just seconds separating him from a possible 2012 Olympic berth with the Israeli national team. He needs to shave four seconds from his personal-best time of 2 minutes, 1 second in the 200 butterfly to have a chance at next summer’s London Games.
His nemesis, Gal Nevo, who competed for the Israeli team in the 2008 Olympics, remains a prohibitive favorite.
Kremer is eligible to compete for Israel because his father, Mark, and mother, Anat, were both born in Israel.
Kremer is also competing – albeit as an extreme longshot – for berths in the 200 freestyle and the 200 individual medley.
“The 200 butterfly is like my Golden Ticket,” Kremer said. “If everything lines up, if the other swimmers don’t have the best swim of their life and I do, there is a chance.”
Kremer will spend the summer competing for the Israeli team in the European Youth Championships this month, and in the Israeli national meet in August.
But the real action starts later this year. The Israeli team doesn’t hold Olympic trials, and will select its top qualifiers for the 2012 Olympics during a six-month period starting in December.
While watching the Beijing Olympics three years ago, Kremer never even considered his name would be mentioned as a 2012 hopeful.
“It hasn’t really sunken in yet because it’s still all talk,” Kremer said.
At 16, Kremer doesn’t have a lot of pressure on him, which Liu views as an advantage.
“We’re very hopeful,” Liu said. “We think that’s something that is reachable. We have plans for the rest of the summer season and the upcoming season.”
But the chatter surrounding his status as an Olympic hopeful has given him an added incentive to push harder.
“I’ve definitely given (Liu) a reason to make me try harder at practice,” he said. “Not that I’d go easy, but if I’m having a day where she thinks I’m not pushing myself sufficiently, she’ll say, ‘This isn’t the type of swimming that will get you to the Olympics.’”
Kremer attributes his success to hard work.
He trains 20 hours a week, and often doesn’t even start his homework until 9 p.m.
He also makes time to hone his classical piano skills. He’s been playing since he was three, and practices about three hours a week.
Kremer considers himself a technical swimmer, and says he pays more attention to his strokes than his times. He watches videos of some of his swims and pays meticulous attention to coaches’ evaluations.
“I like to focus on my stroke technique,” said Kremer, a Los Altos resident. “One of my coaches told me when I was really young, that’s what really matters.
“Everyone can get big and everyone can get strong, but technique is what will separate you.”
His down-to-earth personality has made him a fan favorite in the Peninsula swimming circuit.
He was PEAK’s only teenager who showed up last Tuesday to swim in a breast cancer benefit amid a rare June rainstorm.
“He’s humble, and that’s part of his charm,” Liu said.
“You have some bigtime swimmers who honestly are not very likeable guys and people don’t like that, but he doesn’t think that he’s way above other people.
“He’s just a very likeable guy.”