Road to Paris: After Making History at NCAAs, Delaware’s Toni Sabev Targeting Olympic Cut

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Road to Paris: After Making History at NCAAs, Delaware’s Toni Sabev Targeting Olympic Cut

The road to the Olympics takes swimmers from all over the world through the American college system. From far and wide, countries big and small, a litany of colleges can contribute to the 800 or so Olympic swimmers that’ll converge on Paris this summer. In the months until that happens, we’re shining a light on the journeys of some of those swimmers in a series of stories on The Road To Paris.

This spring has been an emotional rollercoaster for Toni Sabev, although of a slightly different tenor than in recent years. It’s already paying historic dividends.

The last two seasons, the junior from the University of Delaware found himself on the wrong side of the NCAA psych sheet cut line by narrow margins. In 2023, he was 34th, .06 seconds behind the 30 that made it in the men’s 100 breaststroke. This year, finishing 26th nationally ensured he would make history as the first swimmer in Blue Hens history to compete at NCAAs.

“For me, being at this meet, it’s an honor, to represent my program, to show the United States that my coaches are doing a great job preparing for me,” Sabev said in Indianapolis, after finishing 21st in the 100 breast. He also was 40th in the 200 breast. “I’m glad I could come here and show what I can do.”

Toni Sabev; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Fresh off this step, Sabev’s challenge turns to international waters, where the Bulgarian hopes to parlay his NCAA season into a spot at the Paris Olympics.

It hasn’t all been rosy for Sabev in 2024. He called his performance at the World Aquatics Championships in Qatar, “really awful,” having finished 23rd in the 50 breaststroke and 31st in the 100. Both were far from best times.

Inclusion in Worlds marked a step forward for the native of Veliko Tarnovo. His only major international meet before Doha had been the 2022 European Championships, where he finished 22nd in the 100 breast and made a semifinal in the 50 breast, tying for 13th.

His international debut followed his freshman season at Delaware, the result of what he called, “a leap” to the American college system. His older brother, Simeon Sabev, made the jump first, recruited to Delaware in 2020. Toni was unsure if he would follow, but the connection to coach Pablo Marmolejo helped seal the deal.

“I called Pablo and he was like, yup, you can come here,” Toni said. “We do a great job. and the program is great. I decided to take the initiative, got to the United States, not knowing anything about short-course yards or anything about the program. It was probably one of the greatest decisions I’ve done in my career, if I’m being honest.”

Part of the move is Toni’s bond with his brother. He was effusive in praising his brother’s trailblazing. Simeon made two A finals at the CAA Championships this year in butterfly and got the relay handoff from Toni on a pair of winning medley relays at the conference meet. Delaware set the CAA record in the 200 medley, and both brothers were in the quartet that in 2023 set the 400 medley mark.

“I cannot express my gratitude for my brother,” Toni said. “He’s helped me so much, and he’s one of the smartest people I know in terms of schoolwork and life in general. So when I went into the U.S., I didn’t know curriculum programs or anything like that, and he showed me the way of what I would like to get into, and I’m forever grateful for that.”

Sabev is hoping his NCAAs success could lead to a Paris ticket. His best time long-course time in the 100 breast is 1:00.61, stuck stubbornly since 2022. He went 1:01.95 in Doha, a source of frustration. The Olympic A cut in the 100 breast is 59.49, with the B cut three tenths slower.

Two Bulgarians have punched their tickets for Paris – Petar Mitsin in the 400 and 800 free and Josif Miladinov in the 100 fly. Miladinov was one of four Bulgarian men in Tokyo in 2021, qualifying for the 100 fly final and finishing eighth. Sabev ranks third among Bulgarians in FINA points.

Sabev will have competition in breaststroke. Lyubomir Epitropov, who swims at Tennessee and competed at the Tokyo Games, has gone 2:09.68 in the 200 breast and 1:00.32 in the 100. Epitropov’s best chance is the 200, with his best time from Tokyo right on the A cut, though he needs to replicate it within the qualification window.

Sabev hopes his adaptation to short-course yards, with its dependence on yards, will bode well for the longer pool, where he’s more comfortable. The target is June’s European Championships in Belgrade. It’ll be one of the last chances to reach Paris, and Sabev hope to be in peak condition, mentally and physically.

“I feel like I’m capable of more,” he said. “I feel like what I need to work on from now on is my emotional control, being able to not get caught up in the fast swimming, being in my own zone and working it out.”

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