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Jill McCormick is pretty sure the email came in June.

It read something along the lines of, “Hey Coach Jill, I don’t know if you remember me … ”

McCormick, the coach of Santa Rosa Junior College’s swim and dive team, knew the sender all right.

“I remember him distinctly because he was a big fish that got away,” she said.

The big fish was Nate English.

English, 30, graduated from Santa Rosa High in 2005 as an experienced and decorated swimmer for both club and school teams. But he was done. Something he had once loved had become a chore.

“It was one of those things where I almost lost the fun for it in high school,” he said. “I had this talent to swim fast, but my work ethic wasn’t there.”

When English enrolled at SRJC, McCormick tried to get him to come out for the Bear Cubs, but he was never interested.

“I went after him pretty hard,” she said. “He was really good. I knew he was on my campus walking around and it was making me crazy.”

He always said no. Instead, he focused on school, got his AA degree and transferred to Cal. He swam some there, just for exercise, but largely worked on getting his degree in philosophy.

Then it was extended travel, a move to Los Angeles, a good-paying job in bartending and the high life. And, eventually, the beginning signs of a paunch and some back pain.

“I was having a little too much fun,” he said.

So he returned to the water. And this time, it was different. He was once again putting something of himself into his workouts, but suddenly he was getting more in return.

“It was more than exercise,” he said. “That kind of clicked, ‘I love swimming.’ It was an awakening moment, ‘Man, this is what makes me happy.’ ”

“It’s almost meditative for me,” he said. “At that time in my life it was a way to figure out what I was doing with my life.”

Swimming helped English realign how he thought about things. And swimming gave him balance when he moved back to Santa Rosa after what he describes as a rough spell in southern California.

He admits he was in a little bit of “panic mode. That feeling of ‘What am I doing with my life?’ ” He called it his quarter-life crisis.

So he jumped into a master’s swim program coached by SRJC’s head assistant coach Tyler Denize.

He also readied himself to take classes at the JC to “restart the engine, see what clicks.”

After watching English swim in the masters groups, Denize suggested to English that he reach out to McCormick. As long as English was returning to the classroom, he might as well give the team a go, right?

But 12 years is a long time to be away from competitive swimming, and McCormick’s program is no joke. How would a 30-year-old fare in her withering workouts?

“I already had Nolan (Stimple, assistant coach) and Tyler saying right off the bat, ‘He’s legit. He’s good,’ ” she said.

So it took English swimming, say, half a length of the pool to convince McCormick to give it a go.

“In a couple of strokes, I was like ‘OK,’ ” she said.

“We were very, very happy,” Denize said of finally landing the “big fish.”

“He works really hard,” he said. “It’s a skillset or a personality trait that you can’t teach and you can’t coach that. That is why he’s very valuable to the team, he works really, really hard.”

And he swims pretty fast, too.

At the competitive Cuesta College Invitational March 9-10, English was seventh in the 200-yard individual medley, eighth in the 400 individual medley, and 15th in the 100-yard butterfly.

“I would love for him to make state, but making state is really hard,” Denize said. “He’s going to swim fantastically, he’s going to perform very well, but only 16 people make it to the state event in California, so it’s really hard to make it.”

But both McCormick and Denize said of all of English’s myriad X-factors, his work ethic is the most impressive and the ingredient that could take him to the state meet. After all, this is a guy who works full time as a bartender at Jackson’s Bar and Oven, takes 13 units at the JC and was voted by his teammates captain of the squad.

“Jill’s program is very, very hard, and for him to be in the middle of his life, going to school, it’s just impressive,” Denize said. “It’s not easy to just walk into Jill’s swim program and weight program and commitment program.”

English does not take his schedule lightly. He plans his pre-workout breakfasts before he goes to bed after a midnight shift at the bar. He focuses on nutrition and recovery. He says no to things that might get in the way of his commitment.

After a recent bar shift, coworkers were heading out for a drink. English demurred.

“Nah, I have to get up at 6:45 and I’m committed,” he said. “It’s been tough but it’s also satisfying in a way. … Beyond the exercise, it’s the mental aspect. Now I know I can commit to something and stick with it and push myself.”

Denize said English’s work rate and his work and life balance are an example for his teammates that as a coach, he can’t always convey.

“As a coach, I could say that all day long, but as a teammate, they really listen to him more than me,” he said.

But English said the respect between teammates is mutual.

“To me, I’m proud they are there,” he said. “Just the fact that they are committed, showing up; I didn’t do that.

“To me, it’s very back and forth. I very much respect them and what they are doing because I didn’t do that and didn’t have the maturity to do it. And I think they respect me for showing up and putting up fast times.”

And for good measure he always has a response, whether the young bucks beat him, or whether the old guy takes it to them: “Come on guys, I’m 30 years old!”

English is taking classes and is eyeing a career working with athletes, something perhaps like physical therapy. He’s not exactly sure, but he’s no longer anxious about it. He has renewed focus.

“I’m kind of over that panic mode of ‘What am I going to do with my life,’ ” he said.

And the philosophy major who is not afraid of self-reflection does not have to turn to deep thoughts about what role his return to swimming has played in his renewed vigor in life. It’s all over his face.

“I’m stoked,” he said. “I’m absolutely stoked.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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