Robert Stafford is set to be a big fish in a new pond.
The Durango High School swim team and Durango Swim Club standout has signed a National Letter of Intent to St. Cloud State University, a Division II squad that finished 14th in the national championships this season.
Stafford said he chose Division II over Division I schools Western Illinois University, the University of South Dakota, and the University of Denver on the advice of club coach John Gadbois.
"I could swim at Division I, but it's a lot more intense, and I probably wouldn't have as much fun as I'll have in Division II," Stafford said.
"He's earned everything that he's gonna get out of this," Gadbois said. "He's going to a great swimming school."
Stafford is eager to swim with a large team at a low altitude. His fastest times already are better than anybody currently racing in the 1,650 freestyle at St. Cloud State, and he also hopes to challenge for an 800 freestyle relay spot and swim in the 200 and 500 frees, the 200 and 400 individual medley and the 200 backstroke.
"He'll step in immediately as a freshman and contribute pretty heavily to the program," Gadbois said.
High school coach Jordan Parker thinks it's important that Stafford maintains his steely focus as he transitions to a new role.
"You have to embrace being the young one again," said the former swimmer for 23-time Division III national champion Kenyon College. "You have to embrace somebody taking you in and saying 'Let me show you the ropes.'"
Gadbois said Stafford is just now beginning to develop adult muscle mass and will continue to get faster over the next few years. Although Stafford considers himself a middle-distance racer at heart, Gadbois believes his potential might be most prolific in the endurance events.
"When he gets to college, because he's just such a hard worker and so forth, he's faster than anybody they have in the distance events," Gadbois said. "Even though that's not his strength, he just works so hard that he can do those things."
This past season was a busy one for Stafford, competing in the Western Section Championships in Federal Way, Wash., at the club level and then returning to DHS for the high school slate, in which Stafford was co-captain and led the boys team to the verge of a district championship over District 51, a conglomeration of Grand Valley programs.
Stafford finished 19th in Class 5A at the state championships in the individual medley and 25th in the 100 backstroke. Parker said she began to see more maturity in him as he eyed a college career.
"He's always been a really hard worker," she said. "He got the hardest worker (award) last year. But this year, you could really see him focus."
Stafford's mom, Nora, said she dumped him in the pool at eight weeks old, and he started swimming shortly after. Nora works at Needham Elementary, while husband Robert Sr. works at Bayfield Elementary.
"My husband grew up swimming, and I swim also, I just didn't swim competitively," Nora said.
"I did synchronized swimming, because that was back before Title IX."
All three Staffords took part in last weekend's Narrow Horse Swim, and Robert thinks his parents' support has been central to his successes in the pool.
"They told me to keep going and never give up," he said. "They've been to every single meet to support me."
Gadbois said his prized pupil turned a corner competitively early in 2007.
"He started to realize how good he could be," Gadbois said.
"Swimming has always been a huge part of my life, and I've always wanted to do it in college, but the past couple of years I've gotten a lot better, and it became more of a reality," Stafford said.
"It was the coaching of John," he said. "When he took over the coaching job, everything fell into place."
Nonetheless, it was Stafford who put the work in, and his determination now serves as an example for future swimmers in Durango.
"I've coached for 30 years, and his commitment and work ethic are as good as anybody I've ever coached, and that includes people with Olympic medals around their necks," Gadbois said. "He's just amazing every day."
Parker agreed, citing Stafford's example for his high school teammates.
"He's a role model for the younger kids, to have somebody going on to college," she said. "You say 'Look, this program is serious. It's not just to goof off. We actually move people up to college and prep people for college swimming.'"
Both coaches agreed that Stafford will be sorely missed.
Stafford visited Saint Cloud with his mother, and both enjoyed their experience on the campus.
"It's beautiful," Nora said. "It's right on the Mississippi, and I was really impressed with the whole campus. It's real high tech, and I'm from that area, so I've got family and cousins. We visited probably 10 different colleges, and that was our first choice."
Stafford said he's nervous but eager to get started.
"I really don't know how hard it's going to be, but I have faith that I'll do well."
Mom isn't worried. She said the adjustment will be no sweat for her hard-working son.
"Everybody says 'It's so cold in Minnesota,' and his response was 'I'm going to be swimming and studying. I'm not going to be outside.' That's a pretty good attitude."