The last time David Walters stood on a world stage, it was with an empty feeling.
Walters returned home to York County from last July's Beijing Olympics with a gold medal, but he didn't receive it while the national anthem played.
Walters' time in a preliminary leg of the 800-meter relay was good enough to advance his team but not to qualify him for the event finals.
He was left to watch as Michael Phelps and his teammates celebrated victory on the pool deck.
This time around, Walters wanted in on the party.
Walters, a Tabb graduate and rising senior at Texas, was front and center as the U.S. team followed up its unforgettable Olympics with a dominating performance at the FINA World Championships in Rome. Walters swam in the finals of two world-record relays and also set a U.S. record with his fifth-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle.
Instead of receiving his medal from a coach after the official ceremony as he did in Beijing, Walters stood beside his teammates, the gold around his neck and a smile on his face.
"I wanted to be on the awards podium at the Olympics for the relay, and I didn't get that," Walters said. "I felt like I worked hard enough for it, but even though I didn't get it, I kept a good attitude about it, and in the end it paid off."
At the start of the world championships, which ended Sunday with the U.S. team's world record in the 400 medley relay, Walters wasn't so sure he'd find redemption. He'd come down with strep throat days before the championships began, and he came out of the gate limping, failing to make the finals in the 200 freestyle.
Then came his fifth-place finish in the 100 meters, when he set a U.S. record at 47.3 seconds, and Walters felt his meet -- and his fortunes -- turning around.
"I really tried to refocus and got a fresh start," he said. "I didn't want to just say, 'Hey, I had strep throat,' and curl up in a ball in my hotel room. I wanted to take the opportunity. I still had the option to write my own future."
On Friday, Walters and teammates Phelps, Ricky Berens and Ryan Lochte won the 800-meter relay in a world-record time of 6:58.55. Walters swam the third leg of that race as his dad, Wayne, and sister, Gailey, nervously watched in the stands.
"This was David's first time on the final relay, and the pressure on him was incredible," Wayne Walters said.
Though Walters said he went out too hard and "really just fell apart at the end," Lochte brought the win, and the record, home to the U.S.
Two nights later, Walters was charged with doing the same thing as the anchor of the 400-meter medley team that included Aaron Piersol, Eric Shanteau and Phelps.
As her brother crouched on the blocks for the final leg, Gailey Walters' anxiety peaked.
"Although he got the American record in (the 100) as an individual, he did still place fifth, so there's four other guys in this close race that are technically faster than him," she said. "But then he dove, (and) he took it out like he was not scared. We knew he wasn't going to let anyone catch him."
In the water, David Walters was fighting off flashbacks.
"For some reason, I just kept on having nightmares about how Jason Lezak ran down the French at the Olympics (in the 400 meter freestyle relay)," Walters said. "I was really nervous that somebody was going to run me down."
That didn't happen, leaving Walters to celebrate his second gold medal and world record time of 3:27.28.
This time, he experienced his emotions in the moment.
"You've worked so hard, and you've had so many bad days in the pool," Walters said. "The days that you did feel bad and real groggy and you just wanted to stay in bed but you ended up getting up -- to know that making those sacrifices paid off just made everything worthwhile.
"Swimming really takes away a lot of happiness from your life at times, and it makes it seem all worthwhile in two minutes of a race."
Walters' family shared his sense of accomplishment.
"During his 800 free (relay), I just started crying, because it was an overwhelming sense of pride to see my brother in there just doing something really remarkable," said Gailey, a former swimmer at James Madison. "... I don't even pay attention to the American record, to the world record. The only thing that really matters to me is seeing him finish with a smile on his face."
Walters' focus now shifts back to Austin, where he'll take a break from swimming while moving into the house he'll share with two Longhorn football players. Once school starts, he'll begin training again and focusing on his college season.
But now that he knows he can deliver on a huge stage, Walters isn't shying away from the spotlight. There's another medal podium awaiting him, at the 2012 Olympics in London.
"That's always in the corner of my mind," Walters said. "I'm still real young and still improving drastically each year.
"I definitely would love to have the Olympic experience (again). There's not another thing like it. Everything from now on, even this world championship meet, is in preparation for the 2012 Olympics."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun