TAMPA — As far as Jason Bowes knew, Rasmus Skjaerpe was gone for good.
The Skjaerpe (pronounced shar-pie) family returned home to Norway during the summer of 2009 after two years in Tampa. Bowes, the swim coach for Tampa Preparatory School and the Tampa Bay Aquatics club, had already parted ways with his young friend and swimming prodigy — the kid he affectionately nicknamed “Moose” after struggling to pronounce his first name, the talented athlete with Olympic potential.
About a month after the Skjaerpes left, Bowes was standing on the deck during a TBAY practice when he heard a small group of people near the pool’s entrance shouting his name. Bowes, locked into what was happening in the pool, didn’t give much thought to who was waiting for him.
“But then I look over, and I see the whole family standing right there,” Bowes said. “And I was freaking out.”
Rasmus’ teammates reacted similarly, as about 30 swimmers jumped out of the pool and rushed to see their friend. Bowes was thrilled to have Rasmus back on his team and the rest of the family back in his life. So he grabbed Rasmus and dove into the pool.
Bowes knew from the moment Rasmus arrived at Tampa Prep that his time in America would be limited — one year, two at the most.
But thanks to a father’s sacrifice, the Skjaerpes were back in Tampa, this time to stay.
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Arne Skjaerpe moved about 20 times during his 32 years in the Norwegian military. He spent time in the field, at headquarters and teaching at the general staff academy in Norway. He also served in the Middle East and Germany, where Rasmus was born, and eventually worked his way up to positions in centralized command.
In 2007, Arne was appointed the senior Norwegian representative at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. The plan was to stay in Tampa two years, then move to wherever Arne’s next posting was. But something unexpected happened: The Skjaerpes fell in love with America, specifically the bay area.
Arne and his wife, Unni, enrolled Rasmus at Tampa Prep along with his twin brother, Oscar, and older sister, Astrid. Oscar picked up a love for soccer while Rasmus and Astrid took to the pool. Unni, who served as the head of family support for the foreign nations coalition at MacDill, said the area was “perfect” for everyone.
When Arne’s two years were up and the time came to move last summer, he was met with strong resistance from the rest of the family. Rasmus, 13 at the time, was particularly opposed to the idea of leaving behind his school, friends and the TBAY club that had become such a big part of his life.
“He said to me on one occasion just before we were supposed to leave, ‘Dad, you are ruining my life,’ ” Arne said. “Rasmus is a very polite person normally and very careful with these things, so I was a little bit shocked by that.”
The Skjaerpes did, in fact, return to Norway — for about three weeks, enough time for Arne to quit the Norwegian Army after 32 years of service, finish the necessary paperwork and move his family to Tampa.
“In one way, it wasn’t easy,” Arne said. “But it was easy when we saw how many good friends we had here. It was easy when we saw how good the children were, how they loved it here.”
Arne had already landed a job in Germany at Evalve, the global leader in the development of devices that aid in minimally invasive treatment of heart disease. But he gave that up, too. Now he works for the Cybrix Group, a systems integration and consulting group based in Tampa.
He also volunteers for the school and TBAY. At all of Rasmus’ home meets, you can find the former one-star general at one end of the pool with a stopwatch as the head timer.
“It really means a lot that he knew this place was so special to us,” Rasmus said, “that we wanted to stay so badly, that he sacrificed a job that he already had, which was a really great job, and he sacrificed it to get another job here so that we could go to school here and swim.”
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Take a look at Rasmus’ list of accomplishments, including a state-qualifying time in the 100-yard backstroke as an eighth-grader and the four county-best time he holds this year as a freshman, and it’s easy to assume he has been a natural his whole life.
But even Arne admits his son “wasn’t anything special” in the pool before coming to America. Bowes didn’t think Rasmus particularly stood out at first either, aside from his incredible work ethic.
“He’d be 11, missing intervals and he’d just keep going. He wouldn’t stop. You’d have to stop him and say, ‘Dude, take a 50 off,’ ” Bowes said. “He’d just swim practices without stopping. You almost have to hold him back.”
Bowes quickly took a liking to the fun-loving but hard-working Rasmus, and Rasmus responded to Bowes’ coaching. Arne and Unni both attribute their son’s development to Bowes, who came to Tampa Prep and TBAY after working for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which produced Olympic medalists like Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff.
“He saw talent in Rasmus, and he really started to work harder with Rasmus. And Rasmus worked harder for Jason,” Unni said. “They are a good team. Jason has been key to Rasmus’ success.”
With Bowes’ help, Rasmus has developed into one of the top young swimmers in the state. He has Hillsborough’s fastest times in the 100 breast (1:03.02), 100 back (54.91), 100 fly (53.84) and 200 IM (1:57.58), his specialty. His immediate goals include a top-eight finish at the state meet — his best 200 IM time this year would have been the eighth-fastest in last year’s Class A state meet — and a championship for TBAY in March. He also hopes to compete in junior nationals next summer.
But the summer of 2012 holds Rasmus’ ultimate goal: to swim in the Olympics for Norway.
“We try to keep it on the down low,” Rasmus said. “We talk about it sometimes, but we don’t like to talk about it that much. That would be one of the highest goals.”
Everyone around Rasmus believes he is capable of accomplishing the feat. His siblings have even gotten involved; Astrid will pay him $2,000 and Oscar $1,000 if he swims in the Olympics.
Rasmus has shown the requisite potential to compete for a relatively small country that historically doesn’t excel at swimming, but he would still be among the youngest Olympic swimmers ever for Norway. He turns 16 in March 2012; the average age of Olympic swimmers, Unni has been told, is about 23.
“That’s Rasmus. Typical Rasmus,” Unni said. “He never looked at his age group. He’s always been looking upward. He’s always been like that.”
If Rasmus makes it to the Olympics, whether it be 2012, 2016 or beyond, he will represent Norway.
“But,“ Arne said, “I’m sure he would at least have an American flag together with a Norwegian flag or something like that.
“This is our home now.”