February 24, 2006

Swimming for gold

Local teen hopes to make it to the Olympics

By José A. Álvarez

His fastest swim is nearly 2 seconds slow in the 50-meter freestyle compared to the world record holder. In his second specialty event, the 100-meter freestyle, he is more than three seconds behind the world’s fastest swimmer.

In the swimming world, the time difference could be considered an eternity. However, Ismael Díaz de León believes that if he maintains his discipline and concentration he could have a shot of being part of a team in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

“If I try really hard and don’t get distracted, I know I can do it,” said Ismael, a 14 year-old freshman at San Diego High School. “I really want to go to the Olympics,” added Ismael, who trains daily at the Memorial Park Swimming Pool in Logan Heights and will be swimming in his junior Olympic meet this weekend at Rancho Bernardo High School.

Ismael’s passion for the water started at age 4 when he began swimming lessons at the pool where his older brother was a lifeguard and instructor. The lessons did not go well.

“He failed me,” said Ismael, the 5th of eight children. “I thought he was going to pass me because he was my brother. I was mad.”

Ismael gave up on swimming entirely and would not jump back in the pool until six years later. He was now 10, bored, and tired of just sitting at home.

“I started swimming for fun. I was just at home doing nothing,” added Ismael, explaining that his goal was to swim faster than the brother who failed him. Ismael surpassed his brother’s record two years later.

“I really wanted to beat him,” said Ismael, adding that as time went by, “I began to realize I was actually good at it.”

The 50-meter and the 100-meter freestyle are his fastest events. His best time in the 50-meter has been clocked at 23.10 seconds, nearly 1.5 seconds slower than the fastest world record. In the 100-meter, he has swam in the low 50s, more than three seconds short of the world record.

But, both Ismael and his coach, Fernando González, are convinced his times could improve and he could make it on the Olympic team.

“He has what it takes to make it,” said González, who’s been coaching Ismael for the past four years. “He gives 110 percent every day.”

Ismael’s grueling schedule is sometimes a challenge and leaves hardly any time for fun activities. He is usually up by 4:15 a.m. and in the pool from 5- 7 a.m. daily. After morning practice, he is exhausted but manages to make it to school where, he says, he does all his homework in class and if, he’s lucky, some teachers will let him take a little nap. After school, he is back at the pool for additional practice and to complete his 3-4 hours of daily training.

“Sometimes my mom says it’s too much, but I am doing it to get better,” said Ismael, while preparing to get in the pool on a recent chilly night. “Sometimes (González) gets me really mad, but other times he’s cool.”

Ismael hopes to use his swimming to get into college and pursue a degree in psychology. But he believes he’s already is getting something positive from his swimming since it brought his family closer. Ismael’s parents separated a while back and his mother, Ana Maria, raised the children as a single parent.

Money is tight at Ismael’s home, but “my coach helps out a lot.” The training facilities are also an issue. While heated, the pool is too small and there are no starting blocks.

“We have so many things against us,” said González, who’s been offered jobs at other pools, but says “I stay here because of the kids.”

Ismael’s and González’s dream of making it to the Olympics has led them to consider all the possible options. Should Ismael not get to be part of the U.S. team, he will try out for the team in Mexico, which is already supporting his goal.

Late last year, Ismael competed in Mexico’s national competition in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora where he earned three first places as part of a relay team.

“This kid has a real shot at making the Olympic cut,” said González, who everyday is looking for new ways of helping his pupil swim faster. “And he is from the barrio.”

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