For countless athletes, the word "potential" has been a career suffocating albatross.

Gerald Swindle understands that.

Since he joined the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer six years ago, the 34-year-old Alabama pro has practically oozed potential. And although he qualified for the prestigious CITGO Bassmaster Classic in four of those six seasons, the talented angler has not captured the greatness that his peers have predicted for him.

But his days of laboring under the label of unfulfilled potential might be coming to an end. With two Tour events remaining, Swindle is leading a highly competitive CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year race ahead of Missouri's Chad Brauer, Arkansas rookie Scott Suggs and reigning Classic champion Michael Iaconelli.

"I've won on other circuits, but I haven't won a BASS event," he said. "I've been second in Invitationals where I missed it by ounces. I've been close on the Tour, but I've just never got the breaks to win one. But I know it's coming.

"I want to win one. I just have a driving force to want to do it. It's not the fact that I'm going to grow old and have to say 'I've never won a tournament.' But it's just a personal thing where I want to swell up and win one. I get kind of mad at the bass. But I don't think it's a burden to me by any means. It's just that I have the talent and ability and haven't got the job done yet."

Although one of professional fishing's crowning achievements is well within his sights, Swindle has been trying not to focus on that.

"To say I don't think about it wouldn't be the truth," he said. "Every fisherman dreams of winning Angler of the Year. And with CITGO being involved, that would be like a double whammy dream come true.

"My personal thoughts are I really try not to look over on that side of the sheet. I'm really trying not to focus any of my energy on that. I just want to focus on catching a bass.

"I'm going to do everything in my power not to fish any differently (in the final two Tour events). And that's the main reason I say I don't want to look over on that side of the sheet and I don't want to start counting points, because I got to where I am right now by swinging for the fence and fishing by the seat of my pants. And just doing my deal.

"I don't want to get caught up by watching the standings and thinking, 'If I just run down here on this little stretch and catch five keepers, I can hang on.' I don't want to be that way. I really want to win a tournament. Whatever happens outside of that happens. Until then, I'm going to swing to win one."

One key to Swindle's most successful Tour campaign was the weeks he spent before the season in a hometown gym working on his physical conditioning as well as strengthening a back that has undergone four operations during his BASS career.

"I stayed in the gym all summer and got in the best shape of my life," he said. "I really hit the gym hard and got my health and conditioning back good. Maybe that helped a little bit, but after you're after here (on Tour) a couple of weeks that kind of goes away because you don't eat right and it's very tough on you. Even though when I come home I try to go back to the gym.

"Maybe I've just got a better mindset this year and set my goals differently where I decided to focus on fishing a lot more and try not to focus on politics or anything else. Just go out and compete against the fish and try to rekindle that passion I had when I was 18 or 19 years old. That's all I used to think about. I didn't think about anything else, but catching a bass. The focus back then was on catching a bass. You didn't worry about anything else. That's kind of the mindset I'm trying to keep. When I wake up in the morning, I'm not studying if it's raining or windy or cloudy or lightning. I just want to find a bass and catch him."

Swindle was asked about the possibility of becoming one of the rare Angler of the Year winners that have never won a BASS event during their careers.

"I'd like to win a tournament," he replied. "That's been my goal all year, do all I can to try to win an event. It's hard to win one of these. Maybe years ago it might have been different, but right now, man, look at all of the competition that's out there.

"I'm looking for that break to win one. Honestly, when I was at Table Rock last week I was running around trying to catch one here and catch one there, and I never did have that honey hole that Mark Davis was talking about. I was getting five bites a day and running out 40 gallons of gas. When you're junk fishing it's hard to win. When you're hole fishing it's a little easier to win because you've got confidence that it could happen real quick. I didn't feel like I had that place."

NEVER GIVE UP. That is not just an Iaconelli slogan. Ohio pro Joe Thomas got off to a terrible start, but hasn't let up in his pursuit of another Classic invitation.

"I was dead last after the first tournament," he said. "I just had a bad tournament at the Harris Chain. I just caught a couple and everybody else was catching a lot of them.

"If that wasn't bad enough, the next tournament day I zeroed at Smith Lake. I was pretty depressed and distraught, thinking I was going to zero for the first two tournaments. Then I got lucky and caught a big string the second day and finished 13th."

From there, Thomas went to Lake Guntersville where he finished a respectable 23rd. Climbing to 42nd place, he said, "I'm catching up."

Although an 86th-place showing dropped him to 52nd on the Angler of the Year list, he still has a chance of nailing one of the 25 Classic spots. In addition, he is on the bubble (28th) on the Elite-50 qualifying list that will take the top 27 anglers.

DID YOU KNOW? Next week's Tour stop on Lake Eufaula will be the 16th time BASS has visited the lake, second behind Texas' Sam Rayburn Reservoir with 27.

PRO BIRTHDAYS. Todd Auten of South Carolina turns 38 on March 14. Texan Jason Barber will be 29 on the following day. Tim Carroll of Oklahoma will turn 42 on March 23, while Florida's Chuck Economou will celebrate his 48th birthday on March 27. Curt Lytle of Virginia and Texan Darren Wolf share the same birthday, March 28. North Carolina's Dustin Wilks will be 27 on March 29.

IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... BASS winner Tommy Biffle might still be working in the Ford glass plant in Wagoner, Okla.

THEY SAID IT. "Yeah, I'm frustrated" It does bother me in a way. In another way, it doesn't. All I ever wanted out of fishing was to make a living. That's not to say I don't want to win. Yeah, It bothers me to not have won one of these events after fishing them for 17 years now." Last week's Tour winner Mark Davis after another close finish in May of 2003.