An Even Half-Dozen: Derya Buyukuncu Set to Swim in Sixth Olympics for Turkey

Feature by Shoshanna Rutemiller

PHOENIX, Arizona, June 21. PERHAPS Turkish swimmer Derya Buyukuncu liked his first Olympics so much that he felt the need to qualify for the next one. And the next one. And the next three after that, just for good measure.

In a little over a month's time, Derya, at 36 years of age, will have accomplished a feat unfathomable to many elite athletes. He will have swum in a remarkable six consecutive Olympic Games.

Derya was only 15 when he broke into the International scene. At the 1991 European Junior Championships, he became Turkey's first European National Champion in the 100 and 200 meter backstroke.

Following his 1991 title, the young teenager was named Turkey's “Sportsman of the Year.” He quickly became a national hero, often recognized and stopped on the streets of Istanbul.

“I have been a celebrity for a long time in my country,” Derya tells Swimming World.

After claiming the European Championship, Derya and his mother relocated to Irvine, California, to train with notoriously difficult “sprint” coach Dave Salo at Novaquatics. This move around the world was successful, judging by his accomplishments in the years that followed.

In 1993, he was named the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association (NISCA) Male High School swimmer of the year after setting a National High School record in the 100 backstroke with a time of 47.50. He also graced the cover of Swimming World Magazine in August of 1994, after being named Swimming World's 1993-1994 High School Swimmer of the Year.

With such an illustrious high school career, Derya was heavily recruited. He eventually committed to the University of Michigan, due in part to the number of potential international teammates, and went on to swim under International Swimming Hall of Fame 2008 inductee Jon Urbanchek.

Urbancheck tells Swimming World “I have been following [Derya's] career since high school,” continuing by saying, “It's amazing what he can still do at his age. He really has taken total ownership of his swimming.”

During Derya's 1995 to 1998 career with the Wolverines, he claimed eleven Big 10 Championships and ten All-American times. This stint was highlighted in 1996, when Derya was honored as the Big 10 Swimmer of the Year.

Now, over twenty years later, Derya is still among the world swimming elite. However, the passage of two decades does cause things to change a bit.

“My goals and training have changed over the years,” says Derya, “Since you cannot train the same way you did when you were a teenager.”

Making the necessary changes over the years has benefited Derya. Since Barcelona in 1992, he has represented Turkey well by competing in every Summer Olympic Games. In Atlanta 1996, he even expanded out of his usual 100 and 200 meter backstroke roster to include the 100 meter butterfly.

“The only major medal l am missing is the Olympic medal,” Derya tells Swimming World, “So l believe l have achieved a lot in my career.”

In Sydney 2000, Derya placed 18th in the 100 backstroke. This was his highest finish at an Olympic Games.

As Derya and his swimming career have progressed, he has felt the need to focus more on personal improvement than benchmark goals.

“When l was younger, l wanted to compete in the highest level of all competitions… Olympics, Worlds, Europeans, etc.,” continues Derya, “After you achieve those goals, then you want to accomplish more and more. Like swim in the finals, win medals, and beat your best times. These have been my goals for the last twenty years.”

Less than a month ago at the Speedo Grand Challenge in Irvine, Derya swam a FINA B cut in the men's 200 meter backstroke. He won the event's B final with a time of 2:02.06. He followed this with another swim under the FINA B cut in the 100 meter backstroke, clocking a 56.14.

“Making the sixth Olympics has been very special for me,” Derya says. “Not many athletes can say that.”

Derya's former Michigan coach Urbanchek was also present at the meet. Urbanchek, although retired from the University, continues to coach several post-graduate Olympic swimming hopefuls.

“I saw him swim the FINA cut at the meet,” says Urbanchek. “I'm looking forward to seeing him in London, but I also joked with him that he needs to think about life after swimming.”

Only thirteen swimmers have competed in five Olympic Games, including Dara Torres, the American face for recurring Olympics. Yet Derya is doing something even Torres can't claim… five consecutive Olympics.

“Being an elite athlete and being at that level for more than twenty years requires a lot work and discipline,” Derya explains. “It may seem easy from the outside, but in a sport like swimming, it requires every ounce of energy every year.”

Despite his continued celebrity in Turkey and extensively decorated athletic career, Derya remains humble.

“Fame and your achievements don't define who you are, your personality, or how you treat people. How you react in certain situations tells the world who you are as a person,” says Derya. “I thank my family and my wife Zehra for enduring this lifestyle with me for all these years, since it would be a lot harder without their help.”

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x