On Thursday, Feb. 7, Porter Ridge boys swimmer Chuckie Hawes was slated to compete in his first state championship meet when he climbed the blocks for the 100-yard freestyle race. It surely was the biggest stage Hawes had competed in to that point in his high school swimming career, the kind of stage that can leave the uninitiated weak in the knees and queasy with nerves.
Hawes qualified for the state meet after finishing sixth at last week’s Class 4A West Regional in Huntersville with a personal best time of 49.68 seconds, making him the lone Union County swimmer to reach the state competition.
But Hawes wasn’t your typical state-meet neophyte – as far as nerves go, at least. After all, a big stage and bright lights were nothing new for the Pirate senior. And in many ways, his job was easier at the state meet; this time, all he had to do was swim. No singing. No dancing.
“I’m actually more nervous when I’m on the stage then swimming when I get up on the blocks,” Hawes said. “Swimming is all physical. You don’t have the energy to get nervous.”
At “5 or 6 years old,” at his mother Dottie’s encouragement, Hawes auditioned for the Matthews Playhouse production of the “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” and earned a role. But when he wasn’t chosen for the next production, he lost interest and decided to continue his childhood as a non-thespian. Over the next year or two, he forged an identity as a swimmer when he began competing in a summer league. He said he was immediately drawn to the sport because it more closely resembled his “laid-back nature” than other sports.
He joined the Porter Ridge program as a freshman and the following year decided that he wanted to further his progress in the sport, so he joined Stingray Aquatics in Matthews and began to train year-round.
Quickly, Hawes noticed his times dropping and realized that he made the right decision.
During his junior year, the Union County Performance Ensemble held auditions for its production of “Phantom of the Opera.” UCPE is a collaborative effort available to all Union County Public School students, and again, his mother encouraged him to audition.
“I’d never seen ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ I’d never heard the music, I didn’t even know the story line,” Hawes said. “But I went out and tried anyway. I got in as an ensemble member. It ended up one kid had to drop out, and they actually bumped me up into a principal character. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Emboldened by the success, Hawes auditioned for the Porter Ridge production of “When in Rome” and earned the lead. This year, as a senior, Hawes is preparing for the role of “Cowboy Bob” in the UCPE production of “Footloose,” which runs
Feb. 14-24, and he’ll play the Scarecrow in Porter Ridge’s spring production of “The Wizard of Oz.”
“(My acting career) has escalated so quickly,” Hawes said. “I’ve always been a character. I really love performing in front of people and being the center of attention, I guess you could say.”
In some ways, said Hawes, theater has given him an outlet, and a perspective, that athletics couldn’t.
“It’s come very natural, and I love the freedom you have to be yourself – you don’t have to hide who you are,” he said. “You can be silly and put on a great work of art that people will come out and enjoy and say, ‘Wow, they worked really, really hard on that.’
“I’m (also) so much more aware of how people act now that I’ve watched them act. I understand mannerisms, how people are supposed to react to certain things. (Theater) gives you a large, broad perspective of how to see the world, whereas sports definitely helps you, but it doesn’t teach you in that way.”
Aside from a handful of memorable performances – such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s turn as pilot Roger Murdock in the 1980 hit comedy “Airplane!” or NFL quarterback Peyton Manning’s hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” a few years back – drama and athletics aren’t often known to intertwine well. But Hawes was able to use his production experience to help attract new members to the Porter Ridge swim team.
Before this season, Hawes produced a video encouraging students to try out for the swim team that was aired during the school’s announcements. He also solicited prospective team members during lunch periods.
“We actually had to have cuts (this season), and that’s a good thing because we had that many people interested,” Hawes said. “I considered that an accomplishment.”
Hawes said he’s already working on next year’s video, even though he will have graduated.
“It’s going to be high-class,” he promised.
Promoting the swim team not only has given Hawes a chance to mesh his two passions, it’s allowed him to play as pivotal a role for the Pirates’ swim program as his trip to the state meet.
“(The program) has a basis now,” said Hawes. “It wasn’t very strong before, and I feel like it’s getting stronger to where we’re going to attract more swimmers.”
But for all the success and self-discovery his endeavors have brought this year, they’ve also left him with a rigorous daily schedule that keeps him away from his house for roughly 13 hours per day once he finishes meeting his numerous obligations. He’s also a member of the National Honor Society, the National English Honor Society and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, all of which generally hold their meeting before school.
When school lets out for the day, he treks from Indian Trail to Monroe’s Central Academy of Technology & Arts for UCPE rehearsal. Then, he drives to Matthews for a few hours of swim practice before ending his day around 8 p.m.
Remarkably, his grades haven’t suffered, as he boasts a 4.66 weighted GPA and is ranked 13th in his class of 325 students.
Porter Ridge swim coach Kelly Lepsig first met Hawes last year when she helped choreograph “Phantom of the Opera” and said she admires the way he balances his many roles as a high school student.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised because he’s such a well-rounded person, but I’m not sure how he keeps his grades up and does everything else and still has time to smile and enjoy life,” Lepsig said. “That’s what he does: He enjoys life.”
Lepsig added that Hawes has “a presence,” whether on stage or the pool deck.
“He radiates through it all, he takes control,” Lepsig said. “He’s a limelight person, and he’s good with it. But he’s modest, and that’s what is so great about it.”
Hawes said he hopes to keep dropping his times to the point that he can join a college program. He said he’s intrigued by Davidson College and its swim program. He also aspires to one day end up on television in some capacity and considers a position with the History Channel a “dream job.”
“If Broadway were in the cards, that would be fantastic,” he said, though he added that he’s not sure he has the chops for that quite yet. But in some capacity, he plans on being involved in theater, even if the lights don’t get any brighter than the local level.
But before any of that, Hawes said he hoped to make one last indelible mark at Thursday’s Class 4A meet. And though it will be the biggest stage he’s ever performed on as a high school swimmer, he was confident that his previous experience under the lights would serve him well.
“(The key to drama) is definitely confidence, because you have to face it down just like you’re about to dive into a pool where you’ve just got to do it,” Hawes said. “(Drama) is like swimming to where you have to know that you know what you’re supposed to do. You know your stroke or you know your lines or you know your music.
“You just have to take the plunge and dive in and give it all you’ve got.”