By Ian Garcia
TEMPE – It is no secret that the Arizona State swimming and diving program has welcomed a collection of international recruits, with athletes hailing from Ireland, Switzerland, France and Australia.
However, perhaps no swimmer had to cover more distance – both in and out of competition – than redshirt junior Gordon Mason.
“I wouldn’t go back and change a thing,” Mason said.
For good reason. It has shaped him into the person he is today: an accomplished swimmer who recently earned an invitation to the 2022 NCAA Championships in Atlanta, and a passionate cook whose creations have found a home on social media.
“As a swimmer, we eat so much, so I might as well make it taste good otherwise I’m going to be miserable,” he said.
The long road to ASU
Mason’s parents moved to Hong Kong from the U.K. before he was born. They were only supposed to be in Hong Kong for a few years, but they remain there more than two decades later.
“I stayed in Hong Kong, but I was very fortunate enough that I got to travel around Asia, which was fantastic and opened my eyes up to so many different cultures that I never experienced before,” Mason said. “Had I grown up in the U.K., I never would have experienced them as much.”
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Mason was surrounded by water.
At 10, he began swimming after he got into sailing. Because he was always on the water, his mom wanted him to become a better swimmer.
“I was a big water boy, but my swimming was terrible,” Mason said. “Mom was like, ‘All right, if you want to keep sailing, you just have to be better at water safety and all sorts of that,’ which is obviously key – it’s paramount. I started swimming, I hated it and then, eventually, I just realized I fell in love with the sport.”
Mason joined Harry Wright International, a prestigious swim school in Hong Kong. He became immersed in the international world of swimming, and soon it would set him off on a long journey.
As Mason became more serious about the sport, he had to consider his options if he wanted to swim competitively.
He looked to his cousin, Ben Proud, for inspiration. Proud was the 2017 world champion in the men’s 50-meter butterfly and represented Great Britain at the past two Summer Olympics in Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. Born in London, Proud was raised in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. When Mason was 12, Proud decided to move back to the U.K. to swim while attending boarding school. Because Mason always looked up to his cousin in the sport, he wanted to follow in Proud’s footsteps and decided to look into schools in the U.K.
In a spur-of-the-moment decision during a tour at Ellesmere College, Mason found the school for him.
“I just fell in love with the place. I just got this feeling that it was the right place for me. I wasn’t even supposed to swim. I was just supposed to go and have a look around, meet the coach and have a conversation with him. Halfway through our interview I said, ‘Look, I’ve got my kit in the back of the car, can I hop in?’” Mason said, referring to his swimming suit. “He was like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and then he came up to me at the end of the session and was like, ‘All right, we’ll work something out.’ That was kind of it.”
In late 2015, after six years at Harry Wright International, Mason moved to the U.K. to swim at Ellesmere under Alan Bircher, a silver medalist in the 10K at the 2004 FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships and in the 5K at the 2004 European Championships.
Bircher saw something in Mason and signed him up for the qualification race for the 2016 FINA World Junior Open Water Swimming Championships.
Less than a year after moving back to Ellesmere, Mason qualified to represent Great Britain at the event hosted in the Netherlands, but his qualification came with a feeling of uneasiness.
“I was terrified, I’m not going to lie,” Mason said. “I think there’s this whole imposter syndrome kind of thing. I was 17 at the time or something, and I’d only been in the U.K. for about nine months. I was scared. There’s also this thing where I’d never lived in the U.K. before, and yet I was swimming for the U.K. It was a bit weird for me.”
Mason went on to compete in the 2017 European Junior Open Water Swimming Championships as he continued to develop as a distance swimmer during his two years with Bircher at Ellesmere, and it was a pivotal stop in his athletic career.
“Ellesmere was amazing,” Mason said. “It was the best thing for me at that time, and it was great. I got to swim under coach Alan Bircher, who himself is a phenomenal open-water swimmer. He took me under his wing, and he showed me that I could be a good swimmer. I made friends for life there, and it was such a cool place.”
Mason’s time at Ellesmere came to an end in late 2017 after he decided to move on to a different challenge.
“There were a couple of people staying on with Alan at Ellesmere, but we weren’t sure if that was the right thing for me just because I kind of like to put myself in situations that are kind of different and kind of awkward,” Mason said. “I like to be challenged through my sport but obviously through my surroundings as well. It’s not that I didn’t want to stay on, but I think what was right for me was not to stay on at Ellesmere and continue swimming after because Ellesmere was a school.”
Mason moved back to Hong Kong, but his swimming career was in a bit of limbo.
Opportunity presents itself
He landed a coaching job at Harry Wright International and continued competing in a few events, but he began to think this was the end of the road for his swimming career.
In December 2017, he embarked on a trip that altered the course of his life. He flew to Australia to compete in the McDonald’s Queensland Championships and the Victorian Open Water Championships, where he finished second in the 10K to Jordan Wilimovsky, the 2015 world champion.
Dave Kelsheimer, Wilimovsky’s coach, approached Mason during the medal ceremony after being impressed with his performance.
“(Wilimovsky’s) coach came up to me at the end of that race, and he was like, ‘How far behind Jordan were you?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t even know who Jordan is,’” Mason said. “I was just this kid who decided to show up to this race and do it. We had a short conversation, and about 45 minutes later he said, ‘Here’s my email, send me an email when you get home back to Hong Kong.’”
They continued the dialogue over email, discussing Mason’s training status and his plans for the future.
Eventually, Mason found himself on a plane to Los Angeles the following month with little to no idea of what he was doing, placing an enormous amount of trust in Kelsheimer.
Mason met with a family and ended up living with them for six months while he trained with Kelsheimer and Wilimovsky with Team Santa Monica. Mason took advantage of his time in L.A. by going up to train at the Olympic Training Center for a month, but he knew he had a decision to make soon.
“I had a great season training with Dave and Jordan in L.A.,” Mason said. “At the end of that season, we looked at the possibility of me staying on (with Team Santa Monica) and figuring out how to stay on but also get an education as well.”
In August 2018, Mason applied to Santa Monica College, with a plan of attending the community college for two years before applying to join an NCAA Division I program.
Mason then qualified for the 2019 FINA World Championships in South Korea. But first, Mason attended one last swim meet where he met ASU coaches Bob Bowman, Rachel Stratton-Mills and Derek Schmitt.
Mason had considered schools such as Wisconsin, Cal and Michigan, but that changed once he looked into ASU and its coaching staff.
Mason visited Tempe in September 2019. Similar to his recruiting experience with Ellesmere, he fell in love with the place right away.
“I mean, you can’t beat this, right?” Mason said, motioning to Arizona’s clear sky. “It’s just beautiful weather, it’s a beautiful pool, the coaching staff is just phenomenal and all the athletes, we want to do well. We want to be the best team in the nation, and there’s something about that that’s pretty humbling but also makes you want to work for these guys. I think that’s the thing that I fell in love with.”
Mason’s long journey to Tempe started with the leap of faith that brought him to Los Angeles. It was a huge risk for him, but Mason took advantage of the ride.
“In that time, I literally flew out to Los Angeles and had no idea how much my life would change,” he said. “I remember I had $100 in my wallet, I had one phone number and I knew no one. Flash forward two and a half years, I basically had a new family, I qualified for the (2019 FINA World Championships) with my first senior team and I signed a three-year contract with ASU. It was pretty crazy.”
The right fit
Making a move to another city and to a Division I program can be quite daunting, but Mason took the challenge head on.
“I think he meshed right in immediately,” ASU assistant coach Logan Hirka said. “He’s just the easiest person to get along with. I don’t think he had any issue transitioning. I’m sure just his entire life moving a decent amount and kind of being everywhere has made it easy for him to get along everywhere.”
At the NC State Invitational in November, Mason placed second in the 1650 free with a time of 14:53.88, earning the invitation to the 2022 NCAA Championships.
Hirka cites Mason’s eagerness to push the limits as a trait that makes the coaches’ jobs easier, and practices are always an experience when he’s on deck.
“It’s hard to describe, but he’s a goofy, fun guy,” Hirka said. “He’s got a very distinguished laugh that kind of makes it infectious, but he meshes well with everyone. It’s fun having him in practice because he knows when to be goofy and when to turn that off in time to get serious.”
With his outgoing personality, Mason’s presence was felt among his fellow Sun Devils almost instantly, both in and out of competition.
“He’s a character,” senior Evan Carlson said. “He’s got a huge smile all the time, huge attitude – good attitude. When he’s on deck, everybody is up and ready to go. When we swam USC, he was a big presence just for the overall team positivity, and he even said some words after the meet that I think were very touching for a lot of the team.”
However, Mason’s ASU career got off to a slow start.
Bowman announced that the entire ASU swimming and diving program would redshirt the 2020-21 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mason was given the opportunity to compete while getting an education when he first joined ASU, a difficult task that he enjoyed, but the redshirted season threw everything for a loop.
“Studying and swimming is not easy,” Mason said. “There are days where I feel terrible and super tired and worn down, but I’ve never known anything different, so I wouldn’t want anything different. Funnily enough, when COVID happened and when I wasn’t allowed to swim, my grades went down so quickly. I think that’s just because I didn’t have that structure. I don’t have that luxury of procrastinating, so I think it’s just about time management and just being true to yourself.”
Mason was not allowed to compete competitively at ASU because of lockdowns, a devastating event for an incoming swimmer wanting to kick off a collegiate career right away.
The down time, however, allowed Mason to tap into another passion: cooking.
Time to get cooking
Tired of eating chili and curry every single day, Mason took this time to make a change.
“I’d always been interested in it,” he said. “Growing up in an environment where good food was just available, I ate good food every single day. When I left home, I was like, ‘Hang on a second, why does my food taste like this? Why does their food taste so much better?’ I made the decision that I was going to learn to cook and teach myself to cook purely because I hated the food that I was eating.”
In late 2020, some of Mason’s friends floated the idea of starting a cooking page on Instagram. Not wanting to be “one of those people,” Mason initially brushed it off. However, the idea of having a catalogue of what he cooked and experimented with intrigued him.
“We weren’t really allowed to do much other than swim and see the people that we swam with, so it was a bit of a release and a bit of a way to take time away,” Mason said. “Classes had just finished, and I was like, ‘Right, I’ve now got 24 hours in a day, eight of which I’m sleeping and eight of which I’m training. I got eight hours to do nothing, so I might as well try to do something interesting with it and fun.’ I started it just to fill my time and give me an excuse to eat good food and make new friends as well.”
Mason created his page, @goodfood.badphotos on Instagram, and continued to post content throughout the following year.
Carlson and the rest of the swimming program gravitated toward the account, and Mason eventually brought him on to cook and post photos together.
“As soon as he made it, he kind of followed everybody on the team, so we all followed him back for fun,” Carlson said. “He and I always talked about food, and then it just came around like, ‘Hey, why don’t we cook together?’”
It was a natural pairing.
Carlson shares a similar background with Mason, giving the two swimmers another common interest outside of the sport.
“He’s (Chinese American), so we’ve got a similar background in terms of the foods that we ate growing up,” Mason said. “I don’t think it was necessarily planned, it just kind of happened. We’re good friends anyway, and we both love to cook. It just made sense to, really.”
Their first cooking session together consisted of their own play on the bruschetta boards served at Postino, a restaurant located next to the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center, home of the ASU swimming program.
After a successful – and admittedly delicious – meal, Mason and Carlson decided to make it a regular occurrence.
“What we found was we had a very good dynamic in the kitchen,” Carlson said. “We kind of synced up really well, and we’d never really get in each other’s way. We just did it again and again and again.”
Mason made it his mission to connect with as many people as he could through cooking.
He continued to cook with and for Carlson and redshirt senior Erica Laning, and he even does Friday night pizzas with friends from the ASU basketball team.
He is not interested in super expensive or fancy food. Mason simply relishes the opportunity to spend time with friends through good meals.
“For one, I’m a college student, so I can’t afford that,” he said. “Two, that’s not what cooking is about for me. When I was growing up, I was super fortunate I had a really close family and really close friends, and I would have every single dinner together as a family. That’s the biggest thing for me with cooking. Eating and cooking for friends is the best thing that you could ever do.”
Overall, Mason’s character is what has made him a vital part of the ASU swimming program in such a short time.
Aside from possibly learning how to cook, Hirka believes that many in the program can learn a thing or two from Mason.
“I think how he takes a relaxed, positive attitude into every situation he comes in is something that I hope I can do a little bit better, and maybe he can teach some of the swimmers to do better,” Hirka said. “Just how he is so open to trying new things and able to try something new but also keep working hard in that situation as well. Great guy to be around.”
It has been a daunting journey to Tempe for Mason, but one thing he has learned throughout the years is to seize the day.
During one of his many travels, Mason met an “old, wise man” at a pre-race function in the Cayman Islands. In a brief moment with the man, Mason learned a motto that has shaped how he goes about life.
“I was on a table, and this guy turned to me and said, ‘If you ever have the opportunity to turn your life upside down and go somewhere completely new and start fresh, take it because you can always go back, but you can never go forward again,’” Mason said. “I think that’s something that I’d always been living up until that moment, but that’s something that I’ve really tried to embrace after that conversation because that’s so true. If someone gives me an opportunity, why not take it?”
Now in his first competitive season with ASU, Mason often looks back at the long road that led him to this position.
Despite competing in World Cups and world championships around the globe, the main thing that will stick with Mason is the people he has met along the way.
He took a risk to go to Ellesmere, made a leap of faith to go to L.A. and has found yet another home in Tempe. While he once again has no real idea where the next road leads, Mason seeks to make lasting memories during the rest of his time at ASU.
“It’s so cliché, but the journey is the destination,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know what that means, but the experiences that I’ve had, I wouldn’t change them for the world. They’re priceless. I can’t remember who said it, but ‘Poor in money, but rich in experiences.’ That’s something that I’ve lived and want to keep on living.
“I love what I’ve done. The fact that I get to do what I love every single day, I think that’s going to be the best memory of all. Training at Arizona State with the people that I get to train with and the coaches I get to train under, you can’t beat that.”