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Commentary by Jeff Commings
BARCELONA, Spain, August 3. FEW of the men and women who have stepped onto the medal stand here at the world swimming championships have elicited more surprise — at least from me — than George Bovell and Laszlo Cseh.
Though Bovell was in the 50 freestyle final last summer at the Olympics, he was not one of the people I looked at and instantly said, “This man could get a medal.” He had taken two weeks off to visit Africa and help promote a campaign to end malaria and get more kids interested in swimming. That’s dangerous to do a couple of months before a major meet, but it appears to have paid off.
For Cseh, he had me staring agape through all three rounds of the 100 butterfly, placing second in the sprint event. Yes, he won silver in the 200 butterfly at the 2008 Olympics, but it’s an amazing thing to pull off a win in the shorter butterfly in your first go-round at worlds. Ryan Lochte was trying to do that, but couldn’t pull it off.
Bovell and Cseh are no strangers to medal podiums at major meets. Though this is Bovell’s first long course world championship medal, he was a bronze medalist at the 2004 Olympics in the 200 IM. Coincidentally, he beat Cseh to the wall by four hundredths of a second. And Cseh now has nine world championship medals over a 10-year span. Both were at the world championships when it was last held in Spain in 2003, Bovell was sixth in the 200 IM, while Cseh picked up silver in the 400 IM.
Think about that for a second. In 2003, Bovell’s best event was the 200 IM, and now he’s top three in the world in the 50 freestyle. Cseh’s career took off in the 400 IM, and here he is a silver medalist in the 100 fly. Talk about career reinvention.
According to Bovell, it was a necessity. Shortly after winning his Olympic medal, a knee injury forced him to give up breaststroke, prompting him to consider another event, or call it a career. Ending his time in the pool was not an option.
“It’s been an uphill battle,” he said. “I like to think of the 50 freestyle as my second swimming career. I was kind of afraid that if I came and I did not have a successful meet, there would be more pressure on me to move on in my life and put swimming in the past. I love swimming and I don’t want to give it up.”
At 30 years old, he’s just getting started.
Big boys do cry. I have never teased Cesar Cielo about his tendency to cry on the awards stand after winning a major championship, either publicly or privately. And that is not about to change after tonight’s medal ceremony in the men’s 50 freestyle.
Some background: Cielo had two knee surgeries last fall. Almost a year later, he’s winning the world championship in the 50 free, an event in which the winner needs to have every muscle in perfect condition. Cielo told Swimming World earlier this summer in an interview that he felt like his knees would be completely healthy for worlds. There had to be a few lingering doubts about defending his 50 fly and 50 free world titles this year before he arrived in Barcelona, but he managed to do it.
I have never stood on the gold-medal platform in an international meet and heard the national anthem playing for me. (I was at the 1991 Pan Ams, where I won the bronze, while my American teammate got the gold, so I did get to hear the anthem.) If I were in Cielo’s place, the emotions might be too much to bear.