Different Strokes: International swimmers practice in Davie for the Olympics
Swimmers from 53 countries — including 16 who will compete in London — have found a second home in Broward.
07/08/2012 12:00 AM
07/08/2012 12:03 AM
At a swimming pool in Davie, you will find a record-holder from Bolivia, a two-time Olympian from El Salvador, a Brazilian ranked No. 8 in the world, Kuwait’s future hope for a medal, Peru’s two-person national team and Olympic swimmers from Qatar, Libya, India, Iran and Venezuela.
Swimmers from 53 countries have found a second home at this global hotspot in west Broward as members of the Davie Nadadores club. Coach Alex Pussieldi not only trains them but he also accommodates their multicultural needs.
During Ramadan last year, he held practices for his Muslim swimmers from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. so they could eat before sunrise and follow the tenets of the holy month of fasting.
He helped his Hindi swimmers construct a healthy diet devoid of red meat and directed his meat-eating Brazilian athletes to the tastiest local churrascarias.
He eased the culture shock for male swimmers from conservative Middle Eastern countries who had never seen women or girls in swimsuits before they arrived in Davie.
Pussieldi has dined with sheiks and prime ministers on his travels around the world reassuring parents and swimming federation leaders that the Davie Nadadores is the ideal team.
“People in other countries think my name is Davie. They ask, ‘Are you Davie?’ ” Pussieldi said. “The word is out. Swimmers get good results with the Nadadores.”
Pussieldi started the club at Nova Southeastern University’s Aquatics Center three and a half years ago with 13 swimmers. Now, three weeks from the start of the July 27-Aug. 12 Summer Olympics, he oversees 250 swimmers and 12 coaches.
He will be a busy man in London. Sixteen of his swimmers are competing in the Olympics for their countries.
The club first made a name for itself as a hub for South American, Central American and Caribbean swimmers. Its reputation for success has spread to Asia and Europe.
“Everyone dreams of swimming in the United States, against the best athletes at the best facilities,” Pussieldi said. “Our goal is to give them an opportunity to be good on an international level. We want to extend their careers. We tailor their training programs for their goals.”
Yousef Alaskari said he never would have qualified for the Olympics had he stayed in Kuwait City.
“No way, not even close,” he said. “The team back home is not good, not competitive enough to make me improve.”
Attend a Nadadores practice and you will hear a variety of languages and accents, even from the coaches, who are from Italy, Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela, Brazil. Despite the differences, camaraderie prevails. Some swimmers share living quarters or attend classes together at Nova.
“We’ve been asked, ‘What languages do you speak at Davie?’ ” Pussieldi said. “I say, ‘Only one — swim fast. We understand each other when we swim fast.’ ”
The other universal language on any pool deck is the coach’s whistle. Pussieldi has a piercing one that his swimmers can hear as he calls out their split times while their orange-and-blue caps bob from side to side, lap after lap.
He developed his passion for the sport in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the south end of the country, where it’s cold and both Portuguese and Spanish are spoken.
“Swimming was mandatory in our family,” said Pussieldi, who created a popular website (bestswimming.com.br) and did TV and radio commentary before becoming a coach. “I live for this. Without swimming, I don’t know what I’d do.”
In his 13 years in the United States, Pussieldi has worked for Jack Nelson at the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team and Jay Fitzgerald at Pinecrest. His Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas teams won five high school state titles and the University School team he took over two years ago won its first state title in the spring.
“My philosophy?” he said. “We’re neither old school nor new school. We’re the right school. We work hard. We treat each other like family.”
Karen Torrez, 19, left her home in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a year ago with a stipend from her national Olympic committee to join the Nadadores. Her time has dropped to 57.77 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle.
Torrez was 5 years old when she almost drowned during a vacation in Chile. She took swimming lessons and soon realized she could be a swimming pioneer in her mountainous, soccer-mad country.
“When I was a child, swimming was nothing in Bolivia,” she said. “Now it is much more popular. I’m trying to show we can be good in sports other than soccer.”
Pussieldi cites Kirsty Coventry, who ignited interest in swimming in Zimbabwe with her Olympic success in 2004 and 2008. Babies were named after her or named “Goldmedal.”
“What speaks loudest is a medal,” he said.
Alaskari, 18, has similar ambitions for Kuwait. He moved to Broward in 2008 and was a three-time high school state champ in the 100 butterfly and 200 free at American Heritage.
He began swimming at age 6 and cried every time his parents dragged him to practice. Then he started winning races. Kuwaiti coaches heard about Davie and sent him overseas.
The transition was rocky. Alaskari was accustomed to practicing only with boys; he had never observed females in anything as skimpy as a swimsuit.
“It was kind of uncomfortable at first,” he said. “I was like, whoa — so many legs, arms. A new world for me.”
He had never swum in an outdoor pool. And he didn’t speak English.
But his teachers were understanding. He said in Kuwait, they would not have allowed him to miss classes to attend meets.
He has adjusted so well that he has earned a scholarship to the University of Georgia. First, he will march in the Opening Ceremonies for Kuwait.
“I’m going to miss Davie,” said Alaskari, who is deciding with Pussieldi how to observe Ramadan, which falls during the Olympics this year; he can claim a travel exception. “We are good friends here. I took one to Kuwait to visit. We talk about politics, religion. I teach them some Arab words. It’s been an unforgettable education.”
Felipe Lima invites his teammates over for Brazilian barbecues. He’s from Cuiaba, in Mata Grosso, Brazil. He has lowered his personal bests in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events every year since coming to Davie in 2009 and is now ranked No. 8 in the 100 with a time of 1:00.11.
“After winning four medals at the Pan Am Games, I decided to stay and train for London,” Lima said. “I’ve learned a lot from the guys who have been to the Olympics and from Alex. He has been a big influence on me.”
An oasis in Broward
The beautiful Nova pool, home to university, high school, middle school, water polo and diving teams, is an oasis in South Florida, which remains curiously underrepresented on the U.S. Olympic swimming team. With Gary Hall Jr. retired and 45-year-old Dara Torres unable to qualify at trials, no local swimmers will be racing in London.
Pussieldi would like to help change that pattern.
“We’re pathetic in South Florida,” he said. “We are great in age group swimming but our senior swimming is below the standard of most of the U.S. Our club has 16 going to the Olympics but only three went to U.S. trials. We are weak in terms of numbers of American Olympians. We need to recognize what’s not working well and fix it. Broward has 15 50-meter pools, which is more than enough to produce much better results.”
And with that, Pussieldi is back at the side of the pool, pursing his lips and letting out a high-pitched whistle, encouraging his Nadadores to go fast in Davie so they can go even faster in London.
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