Sergey Mariniuk is No. 1 - literally.
The 26-year-old, in town for the Kerr-McGee Elite Pro-Am swim meet at the Oklahoma City Community College Aquatic Center, acknowledges with a smile he'll probably be the only participant for his country, Moldova, when the Summer Games roll around to Atlanta in 1996.
But that's not a problem for the world-class swimmer, who showed Saturday night he'll have a good chance of bringing home the gold following his win in the 200-meter individual medley.
Mariniuk, who picked up a $600 check for his efforts, left his country two years ago for Santa Clara, Calif., where he trains and works as an assistant club coach for the Santa Clara Swim Club.
Yes, he misses home, but not like you'd think.
"Being the only participant on my swim team isn't a problem," Mariniuk said. "I'm honored I can compete for my country in the Games, but I had to leave. The facilities were so bad in Moldova it was becoming very difficult to train. " As Mariniuk tells it, Moldova is wine country, located nearly 1,000 miles south of Moscow. The country covers just over 13,000 square miles with a population of 4.3 million. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Moldova was annexed by Romania, only to be ceded back by the Soviet Union in 1940. Like other splintered Soviet Republics, Moldova declared its independence in 1991, and money had been scarce since.
At 8, Mariniuk was hand-picked by the Soviet government to swim.
A few years later, he showed his now-former country how astute their insight was when he qualified for the Barcelona Games in 1992.
He didn't medal, but the potential was there, so he made the move to the U.S. and continues to make "international waves" in his sport, buttering his bread with stunning times in the 200 IM.
"The government hand picked tall, skinny kids to swim so I guess that's why I was picked," said the tall, skinny but laughing Mariniuk. I started feeling pretty good about myself when I was 15 or 16, competing against international competition.
"I qualified for the Unified Team in '92 and that was special since it was the last real team composed of the Republics of the Soviet Union. But after that, I was on my own. I had to drive a taxi part time just to survive and save enough money to buy my ticket over here.
"I do miss my family, but you have to understand, when you compete like this, you're gone probably six months out of the year anyway, so I was used to being away. Now I get home about once a year or so. " Something he'll probably do the rest of his life. His home now, he says, is Santa Clara.
"I think what impresses me most about America is the people," he said. "They're so friendly. They treat you so nice. I love it here.
Right now I'm focusing on Atlanta, and from there I want to coach - somewhere full time. I'll probably go back to school, get my masters and swimming will become secondary, almost recreational.
And that's not a problem?
"Not at all," he said. "I have a lot of energy, and it's currently being used swimming. I want to see what else I can do with it when swimming is over. I think teaching is a natural transition for me. " Much like his success. BIOG: NAME:Archive ID: 632934