It just came so easy for James Bouda.
In 2015, despite taking the two prior years away from the pool to try his hand at land-based sports, Bouda finished second in a pair of events at the Class AA state swim meet as a freshman at Glacier High School. Already, the Montana swimming community saw someone with a chance to dominate in the pool for four years.
But when Major Robinson, a Missoula native with years of high-level college swimming and coaching experience under his belt, arrived to take over the local club team that spring, he saw something else. He saw a naturally gifted but erratic athlete who had managed to achieve without taking his sport all that seriously.
“That’s been like pulling teeth, honestly,” Robinson said of honing Bouda’s focus. “Most of the time, almost year-round, we have eight practices in a week, and he was hitting four of them.”
“It’s just part of the process that, yeah, you’re getting faster four days a week but imagine if we swam six times a week or seven times a week, or if you really committed yourself and swam eight times a week, and we were getting the right amount of sleep every night and we were eating like we should, then what can we accomplish?”
The answer, as the now-fully committed Bouda’s last year-plus has shown, is something no high school swimmer has ever done in a Montana pool. And he still isn’t done.
Robinson took over both Kalispell high school programs in 2017, and Bouda, who swam exclusively for the Kalispell Aquatic Team (KATS) during what would have been his sophomore and junior high school seasons, returned to the prep team this year for his senior season at Flathead. There, he has quickly re-established himself as arguably the best swimmer in the state. He’s a heavy favorite to win at least two individual state titles at the state meet on Feb. 9-10 in Great Falls and signed before the season to continue his swimming career at the University of Wyoming, becoming the first Kalispell swimmer to earn a Division I swimming scholarship since Amber Walter in 2003.
The only thing more impressive than where Bouda is now is where he came from. As a freshman, he clocked in at 23.2 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle at state; these days he’s swimming a whopping 10 percent faster and has an excellent chance of breaking the state record next weekend.
“As good as I think I did (freshman year), I pretty much got lucky,” Bouda said. “I was able to perform well and look good on paper, but since freshman year I’ve gotten exponentially better.”
Bouda and his parents, Karen and Bret, give a fair bit of that credit to Robinson. He and James have a strong personal connection, one that led Bouda to call Robinson his best friend.
“He’s learned a lot from (Robinson),” Karen said. “They’ve been together almost three years now and they have a relationship that will last a lifetime.”
“Major just says it like it is,” she continued. “He doesn’t sugarcoat stuff. He’s a really straight shooter and (James) responds to that.”
“I think one of the (luckiest things) in his life is when Major Robinson came along,” Bret said. “That was instrumental because he connected with James … At the moment he needed it most, a coach came along who could bring him further.”
And Bret would know how far coaching can bring an athlete. The elder Bouda grew up in what is now the Czech Republic and was an Olympic-caliber decathlete in the late 1970s before an injury derailed his career. Karen, too, has a strong athletic pedigree and was a successful swimmer during her high school years in Ohio.
Genetics, however, only carry an athlete so far. And with Robinson pushing him and James dedicating himself fully to the sport, he’s begun to achieve not only in high school but on the national stage as well. He has swum in major events around the Northwest U.S. in recent years, and last year he and Glacier’s A.J. Popp became the first Kalispell swimmers since Walter to participate in the U.S. Junior Nationals in Iowa City, Iowa.
Qualifying for that competition was one goal on a list of many that Bouda and Robinson have set and reached together, something his coach said helps keep Bouda hungry.
“I could see right away what he was capable of,” Robinson said. “And I was kind of mentoring him through the process and getting him to believe in what I was saying and what he could do, and believe in himself and setting these goals.”
Another of those goals was earning a college scholarship, the height of most swimmers’ athletic careers. In the years between his seasons on the local high school teams, Bouda’s times with KATS started attracting attention from colleges around the country, including Wyoming. Schools were seeing not just strong performances but impressive growth from Bouda, who was continuing to shave large chunks off his times.
“He’s got a lot of untapped potential,” Robinson said. “I think (Wyoming) saw that … It’s not like he’s hit any sort of plateau or is slowing down — it’s been a pretty steady increase — and as a college coach that’s definitely something they’re looking for: somebody who’s going to take three, four more big steps in college rather than one or two.”
Before college, Bouda still has big goals to reach in high school.
“I want to break the state records in the 50 (freestyle) and, probably, the 100 breast,” Bouda said. “I think those are achievable goals for sure, if I work hard and put in a good performance at state.”
The Montana High School Association only tracks record-breaking swims at the state meet, but Bouda has a terrific shot at setting new marks in those two races. Four times this season he swam faster than the 50-free record (21.29 seconds), and he clocked in at 20.87 seconds at the Junior Nationals. The 100-breast record is 55.97 seconds, within reach, he believes, from the 56.40 Bouda recorded in Iowa City last year.
Bouda already holds the school record in every individual race at Flathead High School, and he and his teammates could break at least two relay records in Great Falls. In addition, despite having only six swimmers, the Braves will almost certainly enjoy more collective success than any in recent years, notably last year’s squad that finished with zero points at state. In fact, the last six Flathead boys swimming teams have finished either 13th or 14th out of 14 teams, and the school’s best finish since Glacier opened more than a decade ago was eighth in 2010. Robinson and Bouda both believe this year’s Braves have a realistic shot at a top-three finish.
That newfound success is reason for optimism not just for this year’s team but also for the future of Flathead swimming.
“I hope we can make an impact, put our name out there,” Bouda said. “Maybe we can recruit more swimmers out of the high school and then it only gets better from there, because there’s not much reason to join swimming if we’re getting dead last and zero points, right?”
Robinson believes that if that turnaround happens, Bouda’s legacy could loom even larger than just his individual achievements.
“It’s awesome for (younger) kids to see what a good swimmer is doing, what a Division I-level swimmer is doing every day, and if they start mimicking that in sixth and seventh grade, by the time they’re juniors, seniors, they’re going to be in that same spot and they’re going to be doing those same things and going those same places,” he said.
“(Bouda)’s kind of the first one … If we can set that precedent and kids can see, ‘This is how I go on and swim in college,’ they just start following those steps and it builds on itself.”