Master mind: Lawyer pens novel set in familiar world of competitive swimming


 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
Attorney Dan Stephenson has written his first novel, “The Underwater Window,” set in the world of competitive swimming—a watery world he’s known well for close to half a century.
Stephenson, who previously worked for Dykema Gossett in Michigan and is now director of its 180-lawyer Litigation Department in the firm’s Los Angeles office, began swimming competitively at the age of 6. By the age of 8, he was winning statewide competitions and by 10, had competed in the National Junior Olympics.
An All-American swimmer in high school, Stephenson captained the UCLA swim team and was an All-American and Pac-10 champion. He competed in the 1976 Olympic Trials and in 1978 was ranked fifth in the world in the 200-meter freestyle. After graduating from UCLA with an engineering degree, and heading to the University of Michigan Law School in his native Ann Arbor, he began training for the 1980 Olympic Trials—but the U.S. boycott of the 1980 games in Moscow dashed cold water on his Olympic dreams.
Stephenson began swimming masters’ competitions in 1986 and has since set 10 world records. Named a World Masters Swimmer of the Year in 2008, he currently holds two world records in the 200 and 400-meter freestyle in the 50-54 age group. In June, he competed in the Masters World Championships in Riccione, Italy, winning gold medals in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter freestyle and the 200 individual medley; and on December 1, was selected “Masters Swimmer of the Year” for Southern California. 
Stephenson swims with the Rose Bowl Masters team at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena and trains five or six days a week, at the pool by 5:30 a.m. and swimming for about 75 minutes. While the physical benefits of swimming are obvious, Stephenson notes there’s a mental thing about the sport—setting and achieving goals, challenging himself, win and lose, and having teammates and nemeses. 
“It requires focus and keeps me sharp,” he says.
While Stephenson originally planned to write a non-fiction book, he realized more than four decades of churning through chlorinated pools gave him a great background for a good story. He also felt the sport of swimming is under-represented in literature and movies.
“I had some things I wanted to say—observations about the meaning of the sport after 50 years of doing it,” he says. “It occurred to me it would be more fun to write, and more entertaining for readers, to say what I wanted to say in novel form. So I started down the fiction path and became addicted to the creative side of storytelling, like molding characters and weaving plot lines.”
The novel about the pressure-packed world of Olympic swimming—featuring protagonists Archie Hayes, the best swimmer in the world, and Doyle Wilson, who is coming to the end of his swim career—took five years to write, with Stephenson seizing time spent on airplanes, in airports and hotel rooms, and writing on nights and weekends. 
Empty-nesters, Stephenson and his wife Tracey found the book’s characters became like surrogate family members. 
“The main characters are 20-somethings like my kids, and I drew heavily on their experiences, personalities, and lingo,” he says. “It was a family project that we all had fun with.” 
Stephenson said he was thrilled when the book was rolled out at the U.S Olympic Trials in June. 
“Several Olympic gold medalists supported the book and USA Swimming put me on a stage with some of them at the Trials to sign books for fans,” he says. “It was the culmination of five years of work, and it was gratifying to see it so well received at such a high level.” 
Readers don’t need water wings and flippers to enjoy the book—one of the reasons Stephenson wrote his story was to help non-swimmers better understand the sport. 
“It’s a story about friendship, rivalry, love, and self-discovery, all of which stand on their own with or without swimming,” he says. 
Stephenson is back on the writing “starting blocks” with another novel in the works. 
“I haven’t started writing yet, but I have a concept in mind. It will have swimming in it, and probably some law, and one or more of the characters from The Underwater Window will make an appearance,” he says.
According to Stephenson, named a “Super Lawyer” in both Michigan and California, a courtroom lawyer has a lot in common with a swimmer. 
“It takes about two years to get a case ready for trial,” he says. “Like swimming, the preparation can be tedious and time-consuming, but it has to be done, and done strategically with the end in mind—winning at trial. When you’re in court, in front of a jury or a judge, the adrenaline flow is just like when you’re standing on the starting blocks.”
Stephenson followed his father, a patent lawyer for 50 years, into law. 
“Even before I went to law school, I worked for my dad writing patent applications and I enjoyed it,” he says. “In my senior year at UCLA Engineering School, I had to make one of those momentous decisions that 22-year-olds often have to make in relative ignorance—take an engineering job or go to law school.” 
Two things sealed the deal: getting into Michigan Law School, and winning an NCAA post-graduate scholarship. 
Just as in swimming, Stephenson enjoys the competitive aspect of litigation. 
“I enjoy the process of setting a goal, determining a strategy, and out-preparing the other side so you have an advantage at trial time. All of that is exactly like swimming,” he says. “In the types of litigation that I do—primarily aviation, medical-pharmaceutical, and intellectual property—I’m delighted to be using the engineering side of my brain. Every case is different and requires a deep dive into science. Finally, every case involves writing motions and briefs, one of my favorite pastimes.”