If you attend the Potomac Valley Swimming Senior Championships next week, you may notice the imposing figure of Curl-Burke swimmer Joseph Pascale on deck. At 6 feet 6 and 230 pounds, the bearded Pascale sports tattoos of his family crests on each shoulder. At 28, Pascale has been on an athletic journey that is far from conventional. He’s swum with the fastest freestylers in the world, and sparred with the fiercest fighters.
Last summer at the 2010 ConocoPhillips Senior Nationals, Pascale made his first Olympic Trials cut in the 50 meter freestyle with a time of 23.20 seconds. He attributes his recent success in the water to a swimming regimen supplemented with mixed martial arts.
The mixed martial arts that Pascale has incorporated into his workout include Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Thai boxing. Pascale says the stretching associated with Brazilian jiu-jitsu–a form of close combat grappling–aids flexibility. Thai boxing–a discipline in which a fighter may strike his opponent with his hands, elbows, feet or knees–works fast-twitch and core muscles.
Pascale also believes that his mixed martial arts training provides other benefits. “It’s a different kind of pain, getting hit in the face, getting punched in the nose,” he said. “That kind of pain, it makes the pain in the water during a race seem like nothing.”
Pascale began his high school swimming career rather informally with Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. “Freshman and sophomore year, I pretty much swam just because my buddies were doing it,” said Pascale.
But by his junior year, Pascale had established himself as an elite sprinter. He swam to victory in both the 50 and 100 yard freestyle at 2001 Metros, and was named first-team All-Met. Later that year, he filled out a recruiting form for Auburn University. He also began to swim year-round with veteran coach Pete Morgan’s training group at Burke Racquet and Swim Club.
Enrolling at Auburn, Pascale joined perhaps the most formidable sprint freestyle team in the world. “So here I am with only a year of year-round swimming,” said Pascale, “and I’m standing next to guys who’ve medaled in the Olympics, basically getting thrown to the wolves right from the start.”
During his freshman year at Auburn, Pascale watched four teammates, led by France’s Fred Bousquet, place in the top heat of the 50 yard freestyle at the 2003 NCAA Championships. That year marked the first of five consecutive NCAA titles for the Auburn men.
Pascale never made Auburn’s championship roster. By the end of his junior year, he had become frustrated with the sport and decided to quit the team. “I think my time at Auburn was an important learning process,” said Pascale. “Every day was tough, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Pascale took a year and a half off from school and moved to Los Angeles. There, he discovered mixed martial arts.
“I was just kind of exploring L.A., looking for a job, and I came upon this place called Legends MMA,” recalled Pascale. “I walked in and asked if they were hiring. They took one look at me, saw that I had the swimmer’s build, and said, ‘Hey, you need to be a fighter and come here to train.’ “
For a year, Pascale worked and trained at Legends, a gym founded by former UFC champions Randy Couture and Bas Rutten.
Pascale did not enter a fight until he returned to Auburn to resume his studies in criminology. He first fought in several “smoker” fights, informal gym matches that often involve the use of special padding to limit injury. His first and only no-holds-barred cage fight didn’t go so well — a young Brazilian fighter, Dhiego Lima, quickly “rearranged” Pascale’s face. Pascale walked away with a broken jaw while Lima, now 21, became a professional shortly after the fight. Lima is undefeated as a pro, and has his sights set on a title shot.
Pascale returned to swimming. “My jaw was wired up, and I really couldn’t do anything else,” said Pascale. “And when I got my wires taken out, I kept swimming as part of my conditioning.”
In late 2009 Pascale moved back to Virginia and resumed training with Curl-Burke. Coach Pete Morgan saw that Pascale had untapped potential in the water.
“Up until now, he’s never had full, complete seasons of training leading to rest and the best opportunities to show off his skills,” Morgan said of Pascale.
As Nationals and Olympic Trials approach, Pascale has toned down his martial arts workouts at Vanguard Gym in Manassas. He describes his current mixed martial arts training as a “physical hobby” that adds variety to his athletic routine.
“When guys just jump into mixed martial arts, it just looks like a bare-knuckle brawl,” said Pascale. “I’ve come to love the sport, the technique of the sport, the grace of the sport.”
Pascale would like to continue to swim after 2012. “I plan to keep training if I bust out a really nice time at Trials,” Pascale said. At Olympic Trials, Pascale hopes to earn the attention of sponsors. Although he makes some money coaching, much of the support for his training comes from his parents.
Pascale also plans to complete his bachelor’s degree after Trials, but he feels he must fully develop his potential as an athlete. “School will always be there,” he explained. “My athleticism won’t.”
“Joe’s had to make sacrifices,” said Morgan. “There are few dedicated swimmers his age who are willing to postpone what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives to focus very narrowly on athletic goals.”
Pascale knows this is his time. ”You only get one shot,” said Pascale. “If I’m going to do this, I’ve got to do it now.”