Ian Billings/Staff Photographer

“The thing that keeps me training is the feeling you get at the end of practice knowing that I gave it my all,” Sonny Fierro said. He lives by the words he tattooed on his chest: Never settle.

Jefferson P. Nolan
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When Sonny Fierro climbed up on the starting block a few swimming lanes down from Michael Phelps, most everyone knew how the race would end.

It was the summer before Fierro arrived at Cal Poly, and the sophomore swimmer remembers looking over to see the world’s greatest swimmer flap his arms as he conducted his famous pre-race ritual.

“(Phelps) beat me by a good amount,” Fierro said wryly. “He was three or four lanes down, but knowing that I was racing him, I think, made me go a little bit faster.”

It was the 200-meter butterfly — the event in which Phelps has two gold medals and holds the current world record.

Like most good athletes, the young swimmer doesn’t dwell on the losses.

And lately, he hasn’t had to.

Fierro, a native of Sacramento, Calif., specializes in the 200 and 500 freestyle as well as the mile race for the Cal Poly men’s swim team. And after a standout inaugural season in which he closed his freshman year by posting the team’s best time in the Pac-12 Championships, Fierro hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

Most recently, Fierro widened eyes as he set his second school record during the finale of the AT&T Winter National Championships in Knoxville, Tenn. He completed the men’s 1,650-yard freestyle in 15 minutes, 6.23 seconds and bested the former program record by nearly 15 seconds.

And best of all, he did it in marginal physical conditions.

“No matter how bad your body is feeling or how good you’re feeling, if your mind is not in the right place, you’re not going to have a good race,” Fierro said. “My body was not feeling good, I didn’t get much sleep and I had a lot of school that was on my mind. But I just let go of all of it.”

Sure, all sports require some level of mental dexterity.

But according to Fierro, if you’re not mentally prepared on the day of your race, you may as well not show up to the pool. As a swimmer, mentality is everything.

The margin of victory — as demonstrated by the swimming events held during the Olympics — often come down to one-one hundredth of a second.

When every muscle in your body is screaming for you to stop, it takes a little something extra just to finish a race, not to mention winning it.

But fortunately for Fierro, that motivation isn’t too difficult to find. And it dates back to his days in high school.

Before his collegiate career, Fierro was a member of a small, competitive swim group out of Sacramento. His coach, Matt Casto — an Olympic trials and US Open qualifier — was a 28-year-old who served as a role model to the budding swimmer.

Casto fueled Fierro’s passion for the sport, and every day he would ride the bike Casto built for him to swim practice.

“(Casto) really got me into loving the sport,” Fierro said. “A lot of the time, it would just be us two swimming together. I would race him in practice. I got a lot of my motivation from him.”

But on June 22, 2012, Casto collapsed on his bike. Fierro was 15 when his mentor passed away from unknown heart complications.

In commemoration of his coach, Fierro now has the words “Never Settle” inked on his chest. It’s the same tattoo Casto had.

“It was something that he lived by,” he said. “Never settle. Never settle for anything less than your best. It’s a constant reminder for me.”

After the passing of his coach, Fierro moved with his family from Sacramento to Arroyo Grande for his senior year in high school. But to the swimmer, the switch didn’t mean much to him.

“I didn’t really hang out with too many friends back at my old high school, so it wasn’t that big of a deal to me to switch,” Fierro said.

Now, things have changed. He has found a family amongst his teammates.

“Sonny is one of those rare people where he could be getting his butt kicked day in and day out and remain positive about it,” teammate Mackey Hopen said. “He stays focused on what he wants. You’ve really got to love (swimming) to do it. He’s dedicated to the things he cares about. He’s a fun guy to be around.”

And as his friends can attest, the “I’d rather be swimming” license plate frame was made for Fierro, even if his journey to the pool was somewhat of a fluke. It all began when his parents simply wanted to cool him off.

“Nobody else in my family ever swam,” he said. “But it got pretty hot in the summer, so my parents just said, ‘Throw him in the pool!’”

As it turned out, Fierro was meant to be in the water.

And for Cal Poly head swimming coach Tom Milich, it’s a good thing that the Fierro’s decided their son should take up the sport.

“Sonny likes to win,” Milich said. “It’s a pretty tight-knit group … and he can still have fun with it. That’s one of the keys.”

On Jan. 25, the Mustangs will host UC Santa Cruz for their last meet before conference action. The following week, Fierro and the Cal Poly swim squad will commence their conference season with a meet against rival UC Santa Barbara.

Of course, the young swimmer has set goals for himself beyond Cal Poly’s competition — the NCAA and Pac-12 tournaments remain in the back of his mind. But before each race, before the buzzer rings and he hurdles himself into the water, Fierro forgets his goals. He thinks about racing.

“The thing that keeps me training is the feeling you get at the end of practice knowing that I gave it my all,” Fierro said. “The main reason why I trained so hard is the satisfaction that it gives me at the end of the day.”

And with his tattoo stitched across his chest, it is safe to say that Fierro will never settle.

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