His patients, weakened from disease, told him to live for his dreams. So he put off his career to do something he's thought about for as long as he can remember.

Joseph Hughes, a University of Utah School of Medicine graduate, is devoting the next two years of his life to swimming. Hughes is aiming for the Sydney 2000 USA Olympic swim team, training to qualify for the Olympic trials in Indianapolis.His work in radiation oncology will have to wait until then.

"In working with patients, and making friends with people who were dying, they told me to chase after my dreams, no matter how far-fetched they seemed," Hughes said. "Universally, they said I would regret it if I didn't."

To Hughes, a native of St. George, making it to the Olympic trials is the most important thing. Making the team would be "icing on the cake." Hughes received an athletic scholarship and swam at the U. as an undergraduate, coming fairly close to the college Olympic trial cuts before going into medical school, he said.

Then he left the water altogether for three years, believing that he had attained all he could. Finding a break from his studies to try weightlifting and other sports, Hughes built up his body strength.

Erik Hanssen, who also swam at the U. as an undergraduate, trains with Hughes. Hanssen also took a few years off from swimming after graduating. The two began training together in September, setting a goal of placing in the Master's National Championships.

Hanssen said they didn't do as well as they had wanted to, but he placed third in the 200-meter butterfly, and Hughes placed third in the 50-meter freestyle, also doing well in the 100-meter butterfly.

"We wanted to get back and see what we could do," Hanssen said. "You don't compete for anything but your pride, (since) most people in the meet are not world class swimmers."

But it was a start. Hanssen said he thinks that Hughes can make it to the Olympics. "He has a pretty good shot," he said. "He has the build to be a world class swimmer and the motivation to do it."

Dennis Tesch, U. swim coach, agrees. "He is a national level swimmmer. He has great strokes and great dedication."

Tesch says that Hughes, at 26, has a significant opportunity. "Many swimmers don't reach their peak until after college, and it's a shame, because many stop at 23, or 24."

For instance, Pueblo Morales, a gold medalist, took a break from swimming to go to law school, Tesch pointed out. It's very possible, Tesch said, adding that Hughes' coach, Dave Salo, has trained many Olympic swimmers.

Hughes is moving to Southern California to train with Salo.