Fabio Dalu: A Journey From Sardinia to Division II Record Holder

Photo Courtesy: McKendree Athletics

Growing up on the Italian island of Sardinia, Fabio Dalu was surrounded by water.

But soon it wasn’t just the Mediterranean Sea that surrounded Dalu, who grew up in Cagliari and recently broke the NCAA Division II record in the 1,650-yard freestyle.

“I started swimming when I was 6 years old, along with my brother,” Fabio Dalu told Swimming World. “At the beginning it was for fun. But as I grew up I was good compared to the other kids and I started setting goals.”

One of those goals was to swim in college. He knew of other Italian swimmers who studied at McKendree University in Illinois, and joined them, becoming an NCAA champion in the 1,000 freestyle last season before the meet was cancelled.

It was difficult to travel halfway around the world for this goal, but Dalu wanted to be in a place where he could focus on swimming and school.

“Italy is very hard to study and swim at the same time. If you are at the university, that will take all of your time. You can’t do that and swim at an elite level,” Dalu said.

Dalu has been swimming at an elite level, both in the pool and open water — both collegiately and internationally.

On Feb. 11, Dalu shattered the NCAA Division II record in the 1,650 freestyle, the first Division II swimmer to break 15 minutes, winning in 14:55.42 at the Great Lakes Valley Conference meet.

It capped a stellar meet for Dalu.

The sophomore also broke his conference record to win the 500 freestyle (4:21.03), an NCAA automatic qualifying time. He did the same in the 400 IM (3:47.37), another “A” cut and nearly broke the NCAA mark in the 1,000 freestyle (8:57.35), earning conference swimmer of the year honors.

Dalu’s time in the mile at the 1,000 mark was 8:59, stunningly close to his performance in the individual 1000 given he still had 650 to go.

“We had the 1000 the first day and I went out pretty fast and died at the end. Learning from that race to save some energy and find a good pace was big. I tried to finish the race as good as I wanted. It actually happened even thought I died a bit,” Dalu said. “Last year, I missed the record by 2 seconds. I really wanted to break the record. We worked pretty hard for that and I am happy.”

It was no surprise to coach Jimmy Tierney that Dalu reached his goal.

“Fabio likes to race. He likes to race our sprinters in a 50. He will take a challenge and go after somebody,” Tierney said. “In that mile, he got out faster. The race strategy was to progress gradually, but he got into such a nice rhythm. I remember last year more 27-mid splits, but he was a half second faster each 50 (at first). He couldn’t hold on to it but it was enough. He is efficient in the water.

“This is the Katie Ledecky approach. Go hard, and hang on. Your body will adapt to that pace and stress level. He is willing to push the envelope.

“Now that you look at it, he could have gotten a better 1,000 and maybe broke that record.”

A year like no other

Fabio Dalu had high hopes for this past year in the water, and like everyone, his goals were thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dalu had to stay in Italy longer before returning to school in the U.S. He was able to get some open water swims in, but did not have a typical training year by any means.

“School started in August. I was still in Italy with some open water championships there, but then I came here,” he said. “With COVID it was hard to travel. At one point, I couldn’t come. Finally I was able to come, then I had to do 14 days in quarantine before getting in the water.

“Then I started training for the U.S. Open. I did pretty well for being in season. Then I had to quarantine again after the U.S. Open.

“At that point it was really hard. It was kind of sad to quarantine twice, but I was so focused on what I wanted to do. I just saw my goals and trained hard.”

But Dalu did everything he could to continue to prepare.

“He is a really committed swimmer. He is very goal-oriented, so after last year’s success as a freshman he was within an arms reach of the record and realized it was something he could go after,” Tierney said. “He puts good work in at home over the summer. It was delayed this year because of COVID, but he was able to do some open water and come in in great shape.”

Wave of culture

Dalu is one of several Italian swimmers to be part of the McKendree program in recent years, even with a program that started its swim team in the fall of 2016.

The team currently has swimmers from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Hungary, Serbia, Namibia, Germany, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Iceland.

“It has been tremendous. It has brought different experiences both from the swimming aspect and life experiences,” Tierney said. “We all benefit from that.

“They have a lot of different knowledge they bring and we can all benefit from learning from each other.”

That includes Dalu, who brings a warm and outgoing zest to the team, Tierney said.

“The team loves him,” Tierney said. “He smiles a lot, laughs a lot and that is contagious. For somebody who puts that kind of work into it, the rest of the team is in awe of that, but to smile and joke about it afterward and be ready to come back and go again the next day, people are impressed with that and it rubs off on people. Other people want to jump in with that same approach.”

The next step

Fabio Dalu has been open water swimming for Italy and sees that as his future in the sport.

“I started open water swimming a couple of years ago. I 100% see myself doing that. I have been training with the national team,” he said. “My goal is having a stable place on the national team and race around the world. My brother (Antonio) is three years older and started doing open water. I watched him and thought it was something I wanted to do.”

But first, Dalu has some unfinished business at the collegiate level.

He is looking to break his own record in the mile and break the 1,000 freestyle record.

“We have a few weeks to bring everything together again. I need to work on my kicks because my legs get really sore during the races. I am pretty sure I can go faster in the race, trying to save energy and go faster at the end,” he said. “I am sure if I control it I can go even faster.”

Tierney believes that a big meet is in Fabio Dalu’s future.

“The biggest thing is to refocus for NCAAs. Now we have to get back to work and figure out how to go faster. He doesn’t have the 1,000 record yet, so there is something for him to go after,” Tierney said. “Hopefully he will be ready for the challenge.”