The SIU swim team will be represented by three of its members in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Saluki swimmers Pamela Benitez, a freshman from El Salvador, Mazen Aziz, a senior from Egypt andCsaba Gercsak, a sophomore from Hungary, will compete in London under the flag of their home countries.
Coach Rick Walker said he couldn’t be more proud of the trio.
“I can’t think of any other sporting event that has the length and history of the Olympics,” he said. “For any athlete to be able to represent their country and go to the Olympic games, it’s hard to find words to describe it.”
Benitez will compete in the 800-meter freestyle, and Aziz and Gercsak will compete in the 10-kilometer swim. The Olympic games only allow 25 men to compete in the 10-kilometer swim in the world, so it is quite an honor, Walker said.
The swimmers have been training hard for the Olympics since the end of the collegiate season following the conference championship February 18, but Walker said working toward a goal as huge as the Olympics takes years of training.
“Once the conference championships got done, Pamela, Csaba and Mazen took no break,” he said. “No spring break, no weekends off, they stayed here and trained. Even in the middle of the season they were training for it. When you’re at this level everything is viewed in the bigger picture.”
Benitez said her sights have been set on this year’s games since 2008, when she missed qualifying for the Beijing Olympics in the 200-meter freestyle by less than two-hundredths of a second.
“I didn’t make it then, but ever since I dreamed of being in the Olympics and I knew it wasn’t a far-off goal,” she said. “I wanted to show myself that I could do it and now that I’m going I’m so proud, it’s like my effort is being paid off.”
Gercsak and Aziz have also had a taste of swimming at the next level, as both participated in the 2011 World Swimming Championships in Shanghai, China. Gercsak took home the bronze medal in the 25-kilometer swim at the Championships and also competed in the 2008 summer Olympics.
Benitez said the swimmers credit Walker and his staff for keeping them motivated to stay on pace toward their ultimate goal, but assistant coach Scott Olson said the athletes themselves have worked above and beyond the toll the staff put them through in training.
“When they show up to the pool, not only do they work hard, but they work beyond that,” Walker said. “For these three individuals, a lot of times they work on their own outside of the pool: going to bed on time to get plenty of rest, keeping a proper diet and having a good head on their shoulders to where they are confident but not over confident.”
The opening ceremony for the 2012 games is July 27, and until then the swimmers will continue to train to be sure they can give their best while in London.
Benitez said she swims between 8,000 and 14,000 meters per day and also lifts weights and works out on dry land at her home in El Salvador.
Although they are all currently home in their respective countries and away from Walker, they keep in touch and he remains their primary coach and trainer.
“Each athlete has their own training factors when we are preparing them for the Olympic trials or games,” he said. “We create a training regimen that works for them, and it makes up their training.”