WRITTEN BY SHARON ROBB
July 24, 2012
South Florida is a hidden jewel for athletes of all ages and ability levels, but particularly for those competing at the London Olympics that begin on Friday.
A record 67 athletes and nine coaches with South Florida ties have qualified to compete over 17 days on the world’s greatest stage for amateur sports.
South Florida Aquatic Club will be well-represented by three-time Olympians Alia Atkinson of Jamaica, Arlene Semeco of Venezuela and Vlad Polyakov of Kazakhstan and coaches Bruno Darzi and Chris Anderson.
The large local contingent that calls South Florida home has helped to solidify its reputation as a training playground for future Olympic hopefuls.
Glistening 50-meter Olympic pools at Coral Springs Aquatic Complex, training home for Semeco and Polyakov and Academic Village Pool in Pembroke Pines, where Atkinson grew up, are two venues producing age group, national and international-quality swimmers.
From the pristine show rings at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington and beach volleyball courts on Fort Lauderdale Beach to the Brian Piccolo Park Velodrome in Cooper City, South Florida has become the ideal training ground for athletes from the U.S. and around the world, particularly South and Central America and the Caribbean, all working feverishly for their moment of glory.
Why are we home to so many Olympians?
Coaches and athletes agree it’s a combination of great weather and ability to train year-round at sea level; facilities, coaching, history and sheer numbers of athletes to train and compete against for a shot at Olympic stardom every four years.
“This is paradise for an athlete,” said Polyakov, who started training at Coral Springs at age 15 while attending St. Thomas Aquinas. “The atmosphere is perfect. This is where you want to be if you want to train.”
“We have everything we need here,” Semeco said. “Good coaching, good athletes to train with and world-class venue, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Coral Springs sent a record eight swimmers to the 2008 Beijing Olympics during six-time Olympic coach Michael Lohberg’s legendary coaching tenure. Lohberg passed away in April 2011 but the tradition remains.
Coral Springs Swim Club head coach Bruno Darzi, mentored by Lohberg as both a swimmer and coach, will coach Semeco and Polyakov in London.
Andrea Di Nino, another Lohberg protégé, will be in London as a national team coach for the Russian Swimming Federation. The 39-year-old Italian founder and head coach of the ADN Swim Project spent three years with the Coral Springs Swim Team, learning from Lohberg and his swimmers.
The popularity of swimming has grown in South Florida in the last four decades. Many say that swimming from the 1970s on was the catalyst for other sports in South Florida. 1976 Olympic women’s coach Jack Nelson of the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale Swim Team started bringing in post-college graduates from the U.S. and foreign countries to the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex.
Nelson trained 40 Olympians from various countries in more than 50 years as a coach.
“It was word of mouth mostly,” said the Hall of Famer, recently honored at Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex. “They came from everywhere.”
SOFLO CEO and coach Chris Anderson, who will coach Jamaica’s one-swimmer team in Atkinson, remembers training as a swimmer in Fort Lauderdale when he was a 12-year-old age group swimmer for Bernal’s Gators.
“A lot has to do with the atmosphere that draws the athletes,” said Anderson, Florida Gold Coast General Chairman. “This is the ideal training area. We have 50-meter pools within 20 minutes of each other. We have some very good coaches in a small area that have wonderful training environments.”
Added Atkinson, “Some of our countries are so small that we don’t have enough training or competition so the majority come to South Florida for sure because of the pools, coaches and swimmers and because it’s close to these countries.”
The $5 million dollar Mission Bay Aquatic Training Center in west Boca Raton gained attention when it opened in 1985. Millionaire developer James Brady hired Olympic coaches Mark Schubert and Ron O’Brien.
The idea of an all-inclusive training site for swimmers and divers, including Greg Louganis, caught on and became a hotbed for producing national champions and Olympians for the U.S. and various countries. Before the privately-funded epicenter went bankrupt and closed in 1991, it raised the bar for the sport in the Florida Gold Coast.
“You always have champions inspiring potential champions,” Schubert said. “It opens their horizons.”
South Florida’s Olympic influence may now extend beyond the pool, but there is no denying that South Florida is a swimming haven for all ages, from beginners, age group and high school swimmers, to collegians and past, present and future Olympians.
Florida Gold Coast coaches including Darzi and Anderson and their coaching staffs are hoping the excitement surrounding swimming including teenager Missy Franklin, Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Cullen Jones will attract more young kids into the sport.
There always seems to be an increase in age group swimmers after the Olympics. The sport is well-publicized like mainstream sports football, basketball and baseball and it comes across as a very clean, competitive sport.
“The Olympics is like the Super Bowl or World Series for swimming,” said University of Miami All-American swimmer Kirk Peppas, now head aquatics director and coach at Metro Aquatics Club of Miami.
“I had an aunt tell my mother, ‘Priscilla, drop your son off at the pool for an hour. They come back home and they are dead tired. They don’t want to do anything after swim practice. That’s how I got involved and I enjoyed it.”
Coaches emphasize that swimming isn’t just about winning medals or earning a college scholarship. Swimming is a healthy sport for kids. It helps discipline them, it’s a team sport and great social environment. It introduces them to time management, balancing school, practice and family life. “You will notice swimmers are the ones with the best grades in school,” said one coach.
According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, the odds of a child becoming an Olympic athlete are 1 in 28,500. Not bad odds, especially if the Olympic hopeful grows up and trains in South Florida.
2012 South Florida Olympic Athletes
LeBron James, U.S., Miami Heat.
Sylvia Fowles, Miami-born, went to Miami Edison, transferred to Gulliver Prep, second straight Olympic appearance.
Steve Grotowski, Great Britain, Boynton Beach resident, graduated from Oakland Park Northeast.
Kelci Bryant, former University of Miami
Reuben Ross, Canada, University of Miami alum, synchro diving.
Brittany Viola, University of Miami alum, platform
Randy Ableman, UM coach
Greg Louganis, former UM, Mission Bay, Fort Lauderdale Diving, now is USA Diving athlete mentor
Tina Konyot, Palm City, dressage
McLain Ward, Wellington, show jumping.
Danell Leyva, Miami, U.S.
Jessica Gil Ortiz, Miami, Colombia
Jhonny Prada, U.S., Coral Springs, member of coaching staff, head coach and founder of Ki-Itsu-Sai Judo Club in Coral Springs.
Robin Prendes, U.S., Miami, lightweight men’s four.
Brian Faith, Miami, keel boat
Sarah Lihan, Fort Lauderdale, St. Thomas Aquinas alum.
Mark Mendelblatt, Miami, keel boat
Anna Tunnicliffe, U.S., Plantation.
Ifeoma Dleke, Great Britain, FIU alum
Melissa Ortiz, Colombia, Cardinal Newman, Lynn University alum.
Yousef Alaskari, Kuwait, Davie Nadadores, American Heritage.
Rafael Alfaro, El Salvador, Davie Nadadores
Bradley Ally, Barbados, St. Thomas Aquinas and University of Florida alum.
Alia Atkinson, Jamaica, Flanagan alum, South Florida Aquatic Club, will be third Olympic appearance.
Chris Anderson, Jamaica, South Florida Aquatic Club, Jamaica coach.
Pamela Benitez, El Salvador, Davie Nadadores, alum
Lani Cabrera, Barbados, Davie Nadadores
Carolina Colorado, Colombia, Davie Nadadores
Hollie Bonewit-Cron, Nova Southeastern head swimming coach, Grenada coach.
Bruno Darzi, SOFLO/Coral Springs Swim Club head coach, will be coaching Vlad Polyakov and Arlene Semeco.
Joao de Lucca, Brazil, Davie Nadadores, alum
Andrea Di Nino, Russia, national team coach for Russia, former Coral Springs Swim Club coach.
Sofyan El Gidi, Libya, Davie Nadadores
Esteban Enderica, Ecuador, Davie Nadadores
Ivan Enderica, Ecuador, open water, Davie Nadadores alum
Johanna Eyglo Gustafsdottir, Florida International University freshman, competes for Iceland, Sun Belt Women’s Swimmer of the Year.
Mauricio Fiol, Peru, Davie Nadadores
Jemal Le Grand, Aruba, Davie Nadadores
Felipe Lima, Brazil, Davie Nadadores, breaststroker
Raul Martinez, Puerto Rico, Davie Nadadores
Chinyere Pigot, Doral Academy, Suriname, country’s flagbearer for opening ceremonies
Diguan Pigot, Doral Academy, Suriname.
Vlad Polyakov, Kazakhstan, St. Thomas Aquinas alum, SOFLO, Coral Springs, third trip to the Olympics.
Alex Pussieldi, Kuwait coach, Davie Nadadores
Arlene Semeco, Venezuela, SOFLO, Coral Springs, third trip to the Olympics.
Esau Simpson, Grenada, Nova Southeastern.
Daniele Tirabassi, Venezuela, Davie Nadadores.
Dalias Torrez, Nicaragua, Davie Nadadores alum
Karen Torrez, Bolivia, Davie Nadadores
Daniela Vandenberg, Aruba, Davie Nadadores
Karen Vilorio, Honduras, Davie Nadadores alum
Branden Whitehurst, Miami, Virgin Islands
TAE KWON DO
Terrence Jennings, Miami
Paige McPherson, Miami.
Andy Roddick, Boca Raton, Boca Prep International School alum.
Serena and Venus Williams, Palm Beach Gardens
TRACK AND FIELD
Murielle Ahoure, University of Miami, Ivory Coast
Eric Alejandro, Flanagan, Puerto Rico
T’erea Brown, U.S., University of Miami
Amy Deem, U.S. women’s head track coach
Debbie Ferguson, Bahamas, UM alum
Ronald Forbes, Florida International, Cayman Islands
Michael Frater, Boyd Anderson alum, Jamaica, men’s team captain.
Tabarie Henry, Hallandale, Virgin Islands, country’s flagbearer for opening ceremonies.
Moise Joseph, Haiti, Miami Central alum.
Tony McQuay, U.S., Riviera Beach Suncoast, Florida alum
Kirsten Nieuwendam, St. Thomas Aquinas, Surinam
Sanya Richards, U.S., St. Thomas Aquinas and Texas alum, born in Jamaica, grew up in Pembroke Pines.
Lauryn Williams, U.S., University of Miami alum.
Laura Reback Bennett, U.S., Cardinal Newman alum, grew up in North Palm Beach.
Manny Huerta, Miami, ran cross country at Florida Atlantic University.
Foluke Akinradewo, U.S., Plantation, St. Thomas Aquinas alum.
Ciara Michel, Great Britain, Miami hometown, University of Miami and Miami Palmer Trinity Prep alum.
Savannah Leaf, Great Britain, University of Miami.
Olympic Torch Carrier:
Jillian Roberts, 19, Miami. She founded the Just Shoe It, which has collected more than 8,600 pairs of donated shoes. The organization’s partner, One World Running, cleans the shows and ships them to more than three dozen countries worldwide. She is one of 10 teenagers from the U.S. chosen by Coca-Cola to carry the Olympic Flame in Oxford, England. They were chosen for helping make a difference in the world.
Sharon Robb can be reached at email@example.com