Time Together at Auburn a Respite for Butterfliers Santiago Grassi, Luis Martinez

Jul 16, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Santiago Grassi of Argentina competes in the men's swimming 100m butterfly preliminary heats during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am Aquatics UTS Centre and Field House. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
Santiago Grassi. Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel/USA Today Sports Images

The Olympics had been postponed, but you might not have known it from the atmosphere inside Santiago Grassi’s garage that week.

There in Auburn, Alabama, Grassi and his swimming friends collected in a veritable United Nations of swimming for a dryland session, part workout, part escape from the coronavirus uncertainty swirling. The global collection of talents – the Argentine Grassi, American Thomas Heinzel, Luxembourg’s Julie Meynen, Jaqueline Hippi of Sweden, Guatemalan Luis Martinez, who posted the video to Instagram – isn’t new for an elite program like Auburn.

But the pairing of Grassi and Martinez in particular provides an intriguing mix: Two veteran Olympians from Latin American countries not known for their swimming pedigrees, both of whom absorbed the news of the Olympic postponement to 2021 knowing they already had achieved A cuts in their specialty event, the 100-meter butterfly.

 

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Spring 2020 @santigrassi @juliemeynen @jaquelinehippi @thomasheinzel

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The relationship between the two flourished last year as they trained for the Pan American Games. They overlapped only briefly for Auburn – Martinez swam from 2014 to 2018, and Grassi from 2016 to 2020 – but have developed a closer bond over the last year, in part because of their coinciding discipline.

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Luis Martinez. Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold/Aringo

“We’ve always had a great relationship in training and outside of training,” Martinez told Swimming World this week. “We’re part of that group that is really close, and we’re trying to take that leap into getting in an Olympic final and being top eight in the world. And having somebody as competitive as he is, pushing each other pretty much to the limit every chance we can, has been extremely helpful. It helps that he’s a good competitor, he’s not a sore loser or anything, and I’m not a sore loser, so it’s a very healthy competition.”

“Luis is a great guy, a great swimmer and a great competitor,” Grassi said. “We really push each other. It’s hard but it’s something that I really appreciate. It’s hard to go to every practice and know that you have a guy that will race for the medals next to you and you know that you have to do better than him. But you know it’s somebody that keeps you accountable, and I think that’s pretty good. I like that kind of rivalry. We’re friends and we race together at big meets, but we help each other in training.”

The training last summer paid obvious dividends. Martinez, an Olympian in Rio, set the Pan Am Games record in the 100 fly in prelims at 51.44 to attain his A cut. He followed it up with a 51.63 in finals to take the silver medal, second to American Tom Shields for Guatemala’s only swimming medal of the games.

Grassi was second in prelims at 51.92 for his A cut. He dropped to fourth in finals (52.15) but garnered bronze medals in Argentina’s 4×100 medley relay (the nation’s only men’s medal in the pool) and the mixed 4×100 medley relay. Both swimmers landed in the top 35 in the world in 2019, with Martinez at 15th and Grassi at 31st. They also swam together at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, Martinez taking 21st and Grassi 25th.

When news broke last month that the Olympics would be delayed a year by the COVID-19 outbreak, the swimmers, among others in the Auburn community, converged to commiserate and strategize, leading to a serious of workouts to stay in shape, stay sane and keep providing Instagram content for Martinez.

 

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We are gonna be walking like T-rex tomorrow #armday #nodaysoff

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The changes were particularly difficult for Grassi. A seven-time All-American and the Auburn men’s War Eagle Award winner as most outstanding swimmer as a junior, he was looking forward to his final NCAAs as a capstone on his career before heading to his second Olympics (he was 24th in the 100 fly in Rio). When that first post-postponement workout happened, Grassi remained in limbo, wondering if he’d get a chance for another year of NCAA eligibility.

A native of Santa Fe, Argentina, Grassi is scheduled to graduate in December and planned to stay at Auburn to kick off training for the next Olympic cycle post-Tokyo. He was devastated not just by the loss of the meet and the times he could put up, as the start of a busy summer for the Argentine record-holder in the 100 and 200 fly for the last five years. It also marked an unceremonious end to his college career, the seven-time All-American fresh off taking second in the 100 fly at the SEC Championships.

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Santiago Grassi at the 2019 NCAA Championships. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“NCAAs was one thing, and the Olympics was another because NCAAs for me, it got cancelled and you’re not allowed to swim anymore for the university,” Grassi said. “That was like, wow, I don’t understand that. The Olympics was like, it gets postponed but you can swim if you want next year. But NCAAs with Auburn was something that was taken from me, and that felt pretty bad.”

Grassi had what he thought was a plan for the next year of his life. Instead, within 72 hours, it was upended. So he retreated to his swimming community to regroup.

Martinez and Grassi credit Auburn with plenty of lessons in and out of the pool. Martinez cited Meynen in particular as sharing a common predicament, as the only Guatemalan or Luxembourger, respectively, at most elite meets. When Martinez finished 19th in the 100 fly at the Rio Olympics, he was the only men’s swimmer from Guatemala in the meet, joined by Valerie Guest on the women’s side. It was the first time since 2004 that the country had sent multiple swimmers to an Olympics.

“There’s certain things that other people or our American teammates might not understand, but it’s not because they’re American; they just wouldn’t see it that way,” Martinez said. “It is comforting to have people that are kind of in a similar boat or a similar situation and understanding, if there’s a problem I’m having with my federation or some things that I need to do. And for me, it’s been the right decision to come here.”

Grassi echoes that perspective but also touts a complementary one. He trains regularly with American swimmers who might be as fast as him but aren’t on the national team because of the depth the Americans possess. It’s a reminder for him not to take his international standing for granted, and he uses those teammates at Auburn to push him.

“There are so many guys on this team that have shown me that they might not be on the national team but they are super fast, and it gives me a perspective because I am from a country where swimming is not super developed,” Grassi said. “It shows me that I have respect from other guys. It does matter that you’re an international and you’ve made the Olympics. Sometimes you train as hard as other guys who are faster than you and because they’re in a country that has a lot more great swimmers, it’s hard to make it to the national team. I have definitely learned a lot from them.”

Martinez and Grassi are just two of many Auburn swimmers uniting at this difficult time. Whether it’s through shared workouts online or just being able to have someone that understands what you’re going through, there’s strength in numbers.

“I think we’re all in this together,” Martinez said. “It’s not just me or you, it’s seriously everybody. So for sure, getting together with other people and working out together or we see other people on social media doing the same thing, we want to do that. So in that sense, it’s a little bit of a help.”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Trey

    That’s an incredibly written article. These two men seem like they have their priorities in order and able to take this temporary setback. I wish them nothing but success in their lives!