The only straight path Robert Howard has taken in his swimming career is from Alexander City to Tuscaloosa. The junior didn’t have many expectations when he arrived on campus at the University of Alabama.

He was not one of the many Crimson Tide swimmers recruited from across the globe, and the thought of bringing the state of Alabama back into the national conversation was farfetched.

Now, he’s the fastest Alabama native in UA history and will be a focal point for Alabama in the NCAA Championships on Wednesday in Minneapolis.

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs, to (my career),” Howard said. “The path has not been straight, for sure. It’s nice to see how it’s working out right now, but I know there’s still more failing left to do, and there’s still more succeeding.”

Coming in out of high school, Howard had times of 20.57 in the 50 freestyle, 45.03 in the 100 freestyle and 1:39.16 in the 200 freestyle. Now, his career-best times are 19.11 in the 50 freestyle (-1.46), 41.99 (-3.04) in the 100 freestyle and 1:33.75 (-5.4) in the 200 freestyle. All of those times have come this year.

“Robert is one that I don’t think anyone saw it coming before he came on board here,” Alabama swimming coach Dennis Pursley said. “He’s following in the footsteps of Connor Oslin, who is another one of those swimmers who graduated last year. (Oslin) developed into one of the top swimmers in the NCAA, but was not on anyone’s radar screen coming out of high school.”

If it weren’t for surprise success stories like Howard, Pursley doesn’t think the program would be where it is today. Entering the NCAA Championships Howard ranks 12th nationally in both the 50 and 100 freestyle events.

“No one expects some kid from Alabama to do good. Well, crazy good,” Howard said. “It’s always a big deal. I just want to represent Alabama the best I can, and it’s not even just in swimming, it’s in life.”

Howard’s state pride is a large part of his drive when competing against other swimmers from across the world, noting that his family has lived in the state as long as he can remember.

Before he arrived on UA’s campus, Howard would travel 40 miles from his home to Auburn to swim for the club team Auburn Aquatics. Because he would be so exhausted after training, even when he turned 16 his parents still made the trip with the young swimmer.

“My parents wanted to drive me because it was time to visit with me and talk,” Howard said. “That allowed me to do a lot of thinking and reading on the way, so it was not like it was a waste of time. I would be really tired some nights.”

Howard is also a part of UA’s 400 freestyle relay, which holds the school record with a time of 2:48.84 and will compete at the NCAA Championships.

“Now I’m the guy that’s going to be swimming a ton of races,” Howard said. “We don’t have as much depth as some of the other teams. It’s going to be a dogfight, and come that last day it doesn’t matter what everyone did in their conference meets. It is right then, and right there.”