Diebel finds gold at end of right turn

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

BARCELONA, Spain -- The self-described rebel without a clue stood on the victory stand, tears streaming down his cheeks, a stars-and-stripes bandanna on his head, three gold earrings in his left lobe and, oh yes, a shiny gold medal on his chest.

Only in America: Nelson Diebel started using drugs and alcohol at 12, got kicked out of a prep school when he was 14 and yesterday won the Olympic men's 100-meter breaststroke at the ripe age of 21.

On a day the U.S. swimming team mourned the death of Ron Karnaugh's father at Saturday night's opening ceremonies, Diebel rallied valiantly in the final 50 meters to bring himself glory in the sport that saved his life.

His upset was nearly as surprising as world-record holder Jenny Thompson finishing second in the women's 100-meter freestyle and Summer Sanders finishing third in the women's 400-meter medley despite swimming her best time by nearly two seconds.

Diebel set an Olympic record with a time of 1 minute, 1.50 seconds, leaving his prep school coach, Chris Martin, breathless. "It was like he was someone who climbed Mount Everest," Martin said. "It was like he was on top of the world."

Martin, a burly U.S. assistant, raced out of the stands immediately to call his mother in Harleysville, Pa. She was watching a tape of the race as they spoke, screaming, "Go! Go! Go!"

Diebel, a sophomore at Princeton, took the mandatory Olympic victory lap from the doping room to the interview room. An hour later, he found Martin in the stands and wrapped his arm around the coach's neck.

"I couldn't help but talk you up in the press conference," Diebel told Martin. "As far as they're concerned, you're single-handedly responsible."

Diebel was exaggerating, but not by much. Under Martin's stern guidance, he turned his life around at the Peddie School outside Princeton, N.J. He had lasted only one semester at another prep school, in Connecticut, because of an "altercation" with another student.

He grew up in a Chicago suburb, his mother a stockbroker, his father a history professor. He smoked marijuana and chose his alcohol "depending on what day it was," but said he never tried hard drugs. "I'm way too hyper," he said. "Most of them would drive me through the roof."

But even after the incident in Connecticut, his mother insisted he stay in the East.

"The friends I had, the people I was hanging out with, the things I was doing were very self-destructive," Diebel said. "Even though I didn't realize it, she did."

In the words of the U.S. swimming media guide: "Nelson has led an interesting life. He's been in a couple of car accidents, broke both wrists in a fall in 1989 and had a serious shoulder problem in 1991."

The fall occurred when Diebel tried to jump 15 feet from a balcony into a pool at Peddie, and Martin said it could have killed him. "Chris says I have nine lives," Diebel said. "Actually, he says I have only two left."

Martin said: "He was a kid that was just sort of going nowhere. Swimming sort of saved him. He had a low attention span. He didn't have anything he was excited about. Swimming became the thing."

Martin became the mentor.

"Obviously, I'm not proud of what I was," Diebel said. "I'm just glad I was able to meet somebody who helped me turn it around.

"He sat there with an iron fist and said: 'You will do this, you will do that. You will be here when I say.' When he said, 'Jump,' I said, 'How high?'

"It's not like he beat me or anything. But any time a 6-foot-3, 250-pound man tells you to do something, it's probably a good idea to do what he says."

The rest is history. Diebel earned a silver medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1991 Pan Am Games, then won the 100-meter race at the Olympic trials in the second-fastest time for that event.

Yesterday, of course, was the topper, and the days when he was "borderline suicidal" never seemed more distant.

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