ASHAWAY — Since he was 8 years old, C.J. Sheldon always dreamed of attending West Point.
But once he got to Bishop Hendricken High, that dream faded.
"As I went to Hendricken my freshman year, it was really vigorous and I struggled with the academics side of school," Sheldon said. "I gave up on my dream a little bit."
But things changed for the 6-foot-5 Sheldon, who is now a senior at Hendricken, during his junior year after a USA Swimming meet at Brown University. Sheldon, who lives in Ashaway, qualified for the finals in 17 races, ranging from the 50-meter freestyle to the 1,650 free for the Boston Gators club team.
That attracted attention.
Brown, Penn State, Air Force, the Naval Academy and, most importantly, West Point, all expressed interest.
"Halfway through my junior year, the West Point coach reached out to me. He told me I would be able to make it academically through hard work," Sheldon said. "This year, I've worked hard really hard and done well in school. I feel good about my academics."
Sheldon visited West Point before the pandemic struck. He met with coach Brandt Nigro and the team, and was told there was a spot on the team that he accepted. Sheldon will have to serve a minimum of five years in the Army after graduating.
"I liked the concept of being in the Army. Maybe Ranger school is an option after I graduate," he said.
Sheldon thinks he can improve as a swimmer.
"When my club coach [Chris Morgan] talked with West Point, he told him I had never done drylands. A lot of colleges practice twice a day and I've never done that. I could never find a club to do double sessions. He told them he thought I had a tremendous upside," Sheldon said.
Drylands are workouts that swimmers do out of the pool, such as weightlifting, pushups, squats and stretching exercises to increase strength and flexibility.
During his time at Hendricken, Sheldon has put together a lengthy list of significant accomplishments over his first three years.
He has been selected state swimmer of the year twice by the Providence Journal. He has been All-State three times and won four individual state titles. He has also anchored five relay teams to first-place finishes at the state meet.
He holds the state record in the 50 freestyle. He also has Hendricken records in the 100 free and the 200 and 400 free relays.
The Hawks have won the state title 30 of the last 31 years, including Sheldon's three years with the team.
He has competed in the YMCA nationals in Greensboro, N.C., the USA Zone Championships in Richmond, Va., and the USA Future Championships in Geneva, Ohio.
For now, swimming is on hold in the state due to the pandemic. Sheldon is hopeful for some sort of season. Connecticut conducted virtual meets during the fall season for girls.
"I like to compete in person. I like the competition aspect. Hopefully, they can figure something out," Sheldon said.
Sheldon said having the top 10 swimmers in each race compete in a state meet would be an idea he would support if it's feasible.
What advice would Sheldon give to a young swimmer just starting the sport?
"I think one of the biggest things is to communicate with other coaches and swimmers. Swim for different teams," he said. "Being able to foster a relationship with other coaches is important. Talk to other people. Get their strategy on strokes, racing strategy and mindsets."
Sheldon, a team captain this season, said he has learned a lot during his time at Hendricken.
"Hendricken definitely teaches you time management," he said. "Living in Ashaway, it's an hour ride to school. If you don't use your time well, your grades will reflect it.
"On the swimming side, I really didn't know what to expect. On the first night a couple of seniors took me under their wing. I had a personal relationship with them and what it means to be at Hendricken. It's a tight brotherhood."