In any language, he's competitor American Zubero swims for Spain

July 27, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Martin Zubero speaks proudly of his Spanish heritage, a neat trick for a swim- ,4p6,6l mer born in Jacksonville, Fla., and living in Gainesville, Fla.

Zubero, 23, is the world-record holder in the 200-meter backstroke, and Spain's leading gold-medal contender in the 25th Olympiad. Who cares if he stumbles over the mother tongue?

It's called dual citizenship, and it's a useful advantage in the pursuit of an Olympic dream. The Spanish happily play along, seeing as how they have won a total of four gold medals since 1896.

Still, if you asked Zubero about the running of the bulls, he probably would think you were talking about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

And if you asked him about Franco, he'd probably think you were talking about Julio, the Texas Rangers' second baseman.

Zubero, naturally, tried to stonewall the issue when confronted by American reporters. Too bad he wasn't involved in Watergate. The scandal would have broken a lot sooner.

Indeed, moments after Zubero said his family always spoke Spanish at home, his brother David said, "He's just trying to cover up."

David, a bronze medalist for Spain in 1980, said the only time the three Zubero children used the foreign language was when they ZTC visited their grandmother in Spain.

Martin added that he took Spanish courses in high school and at the University of Florida, but dismissed his lack of fluency by saying, "Hell, in Gainesville, there's no one to talk to."

Hey, when you're on the verge of becoming a national hero, you act the part. Zubero spoke halting Spanish at a news conference on Thursday, yet was mobbed by local reporters afterward.

His father, Jose, was born in Zaragoza, midway between Madrid and Barcelona. He left to attend medical school in the United States, married an American and became a Jacksonville ophthalmologist.

Zubero's mother, Elizabeth, does not speak Spanish, but both his brother, David, and sister, Julia, swam for Spain in 1980. Zubero merely followed the same Olympic path.

"I am from the United States," said Zubero, who will swim in four events, starting with the 200-meter backstroke tomorrow. "But the way I was brought up with my father, I feel like I'm from his homeland."

Translation:

"I never thought I'd be good enough to make the U.S. team."

Indeed, Zubero finished 11th in the 200-meter backstroke at the '88 Games. Who would have guessed he would become the first world and European champion in the history of Spanish swimming?

He majors in history at the University of Florida -- American history. He trains in Gainesville with Anthony Nesty of Suriname and Greg Burgess of the United States.

What do his Spanish teammates think? Zubero said, "Nobody here ever gives me a hard time at all." But his brother, David, said resentment exists, though "not openly."

"When I swam, they gave me the same thing," David said. "When you're on top, people find ways to pull you down. You've got to live with it."

Zubero's teammate Sergio Lopez, a bronze medalist for Spain in 1988 who also attended college in the United States, said, "He could swim for America and win a gold medal, but he chose to swim for his own country.

"Some people are getting on him about the language. That's lame. They should be proud of him."

For the most part, they are. Zubero said he was shocked by the media coverage of his arrival from Gainesville last Wednesday -- his first visit to Spain since a three-day trip last February.

"I don't get that much press when I come over here, but at the airport it was just incredible," Zubero said. "I came out of the plane, went through customs and 50-60 reporters were waiting.

"That's not the first thing you want to see after an eight-hour trip. It got me out of jet lag real quick."

A news conference last Wednesday was nearly as chaotic, and Zubero grew uncomfortable when the questions turned to his background.

"It kind of ticks me off a little bit," he said. "I've pretty much made my statement. I can speak Spanish. Come on. There are a lot of swimmers who don't think I speak it at all."

Zubero can relax.

English, Spanish, in the pool, it doesn't matter.

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