Switzerland’s Noe Ponti Emerges as One of Tokyo Olympics’ Rising Stars; N.C. State His Next Locale

Jul 30, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) shakes hands with Noe Ponti (SUI) after the men's 100m butterfly semifinals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Switzerland's Noe Ponti, left, and Caeleb Dressel; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY

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Switzerland’s Noe Ponti Emerges as One of Tokyo Olympics’ Rising Stars

In the butterfly and mid-distance freestyle events at the Tokyo Olympics Games, one name seemed to be ubiquitous. Every time you looked up at the board, there it was: Noe Ponti.

It’s a name that the Atlantic Coast Conference might soon learn to get sick of.

Ponti’s packing list for the fall when he enters N.C. State includes, as of recently, a bronze medal in the men’s 100 fly, a rare accolade for the Swiss in the pool. It was a capper on an outstanding week for the swimmer and the Swiss program as a whole. Most American fans probably didn’t know Ponti’s name entering the Games, but it’s one they’ll get to learn soon.

Ponti’s performances in Tokyo were outstanding. The 20-year-old native of Locarno finished 10th in the 200 fly, going as quick as 1:55.05 to place himself among the contenders. He helped the Swiss relays finish 14th in the men’s 400 freestyle relay and sixth in the 800 free relay. It’s the kind of versatility that would make a college coach salivate.

Late in the meet, he added a bronze medal, just the third in Switzerland swimming history (and the second of the Games, after Jeremy Desplanches obtained bronze in the men’s 200 individual medley). The 100 fly final had a clear separation, with 100 free champ Caeleb Dressel out front and 200 fly gold medalist Kristof Milak trying to claw him back in the final 50, unable to check Dressel’s world record pace. But Ponti was the best of the rest, touching the wall in 50.74 seconds for bronze.

“It is really a dream come true,” Ponti said. “I’ve never felt this way before. I think I’m dreaming – it’s like living a dream. Before this Olympics the goal was to make the semifinal. What can I say? I’m speechless, it’s unbelievable.

“I was quite emotional yesterday after the semifinal. I just wanted to cry because I was going into the final with the third fastest time. Today I knew that I could make a medal. I gave it my all until the last stroke.”

Noe Ponti is a fascinating prospect, and not just because he’s fluent in four languages. (Italian is his native tongue, hailing from the canton of Ticino, but he also speaks French, German and English.) He attended the Liceo di Locarno, a special high school for elite athletes to accommodate his training schedule, and joined the Swiss National Youth Team in 2015. His first major meet was the European Youth Olympic Festival in 2017, making three finals, then taking part in the Youth Olympic Games in 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In senior competition, he finished fifth in the 200 fly and seventh in the 100 fly at the European Championships in May. He holds Swiss records in the 50 fly, 100 fly and 800 free, a testament to his range. He’s also part of the record-setting 400 and 800 free relays.

He’s come of age in a similar cohort as Milak, who is 21. He has the range to develop into an IMer, though Desplanches is currently that guy for the Swiss. His breakthrough in fly is even more impressive given the presiding powers there: Dressel is the clear frontrunner in the 100 fly with Milak not far behind, and Milak is set for a Phelpsian era of dominance in the 200 fly.

“Before these Olympics, the goal was to get into semifinals,” he said. “Behind Kristof, who I know pretty well, and Caeleb, it’s very inspiring. It means me and the other guys, the other guys behind me, we have a lot of work to do to catch them. That’s what motivates us a lot. It was a crazy race, very fast, for them too and for myself.”

Ponti joins what could be a historic class at NC State. Coach Braden Holloway’s headliners include the two fastest American junior 50 freestylers ever in David Curtiss and Oklahoman Aiden Hayes. Add in Ponti’s versatility and he’s a long way to one of the best freshman relays in the country.

Ponti, who was drafted by the International Swimming League’s Tokyo Frog Kings but seems set to eschew that interest, sounds excited to undertake the challenge of college swimming.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “Everyone tells me that if you win a medal and you go to college, everyone loves you. This helps the team, me, to give our best and give even more. I try to get better still and also my teammates will be more motivating than ever.”

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