Walker Bell tests the waters at U.S. Open Water Championships

His name is Walker, but at the rate he’s going in open-water swimming, Flipper might be a more fitting name.

Thirteen-year-old Walker Bell has been like a dolphin in the water during the weekly Santa Barbara Nite Moves 1-kilometer ocean swims at Leadbetter Beach, gliding past the pack and emerging as the winner. He’s finished first in all five events he’s entered this spring.

On Sunday, Walker will take his open-water swim skills to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and participate in the 5k race at the U.S. Open Water Championships.

It will be his longest distance to date, but the long (6-1) and lean Walker is prepared and fired up to do it.

“Yes, I’m really excited, but at the same time a little sad that I am missing my 8th grade graduation ceremony (from Laguna Blanca Middle School),” he said, “but I’ve worked really hard to be qualified for this level of competition.”

His coach, John Dussliere of the Santa Barbara Swim Club, said he has no expectations for Walker in his national championship debut.

“More than anything, I just want him to see the culture of it. I don’t have expectations of performance. I’m sure he does because he’s competitive.”

He expects Walker will be the youngest swimmer in the competition.

Dussliere knows plenty about competitive open-water swimming. He coached Santa Barbaran Mark Warkentin to national championships and to the Olympic Games in China in 2008.

Walker, the son of Susan and Bob Bell, is not intimidated by swimming in open water.

“Walker is completely comfortable out in the ocean,” Dussliere said. “I think that’s a product of growing up in Santa Barbara. He’s somebody that I noticed when he was younger in our age-group program. Since he has a comfortable level of thinking in the open water, he’s very good at distance-oriented type of training. He’s very well suited to it.”

Walker did the La Jolla Rough Water one-mile swim last year and is planning to do the three-mile race this fall. He’ll also be doing the Tiburon Mile across San Francisco Bay for the fourth time — “It’s my favorite,” he said. “Both swims I do without a wetsuit.”

To swim at the nationals, Walker needed to meet a qualifying standard in a one-mile pool swim. He beat it with a time of 17:20.25 at the Clovis Invitational during Memorial Day weekend.

“We swim several thousands yards at each practice, with the occasional 10,000-yard day,” he said. “I practice six days a week — twice on Wednesday — and put in about 14 hours of swimming each week.”

Part of his Wednesday training is swimming Nite Moves, which he started doing regularly last year — he did his first one at age 10 and came in 10th place.

Walker said he usually draws stares from other competitors and spectators when they learn he’s the winner.

Even his mom has been surprised by his success.

“I was very surprised last season at Nite Moves when he won the first three weeks straight at age 12,” said Susan. “He had a goal to win a swim at some point, but we really had no idea he was capable of winning it on the first night and many times thereafter last season.”

Susan, a retired City of Santa Barbara firefighter (Bob is the Deputy Chief of Operations for the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept.), put Walker in the water when he was just 5 months old. It was in a Mommy and Me class at Wendy Fereday’s Swim School.

“He only took about an eight-month break from swimming, but has been in the water ever since,” she said. “He took to it immediately, and it was very clear that he had some talent at the sport from an early age.”

She exposed her son to ocean swimming by enrolling him in the Refugio Beach Junior Lifeguard program.

“My mom, she made me do Junior Lifeguards when I was 8. I’ve done it every summer since,” Walker said. “This will be my first summer not on the beach because I have two-a-day practices at the pool, and will be focusing on volunteer work over the summer.”

Walker plans to attend Dos Pueblos High.

“I’ve applied to the Engineering Academy there,” he said. “And, yes, I will go out for the swim team.”

He said his best events in the pool are the 400 IM and 1500 freestyle.

Walker also does triathlons. He won his age division and was 15th overall at last year’s Santa Barbara Sprint Triathlon and completed the Carpinteria Triathlon.

So who’s idea was it to swim in the 5k national championship?

“It was a combined effort by him, his coach and his parents,” said Susan. “We love the sport of swimming and support him 100 percent in all that he does. He continues to amaze us, and we could not be more proud of his accomplishments in swimming and in life.

“We are going along on this journey with him, wherever it may lead.  He dreams of the Olympics and of going to college at Cal, swimming for Cal and being an engineer someday. We’ll just have to see where it all leads.”

Right now, it’s all about having fun. The trip to Florida is also a vacation, Walker said.

“My mom and I are going to go to the Florida Keys afterward. That should be fun.”