Two-time Olympian Martina Moravcová holds 10 individual NCAA records, and plans to add a medal in Sydney to her trophy cabinet.
"Now I see a world champion almost every day and somehow I've gotten used to it. Martina grew up before my eyes. I was the first person who trained her, but it never entered my mind that one day she would be swimming at the Olympics!"
Twenty-four year-old Moravcová, at 5'8"and 132 pounds, has been described as one of the world's toughest competitors in the pool. Her record to date bears this out: she won 10 individual titles at the NCAA championships between 1996 and 1999, second best all-time for female swimmers in the series. Specialising in freestyle, individual medley and butterfly, Moravcová holds three European records and is a former world record holder. She has been voted Slovak Athlete of the Year three times.
Together with three other bright Slovak prospects, she forms the cornerstone of the country's swimming team for Sydney. While Moravcová will be competing in her third Olympics this fall, Jana Korbašová, a 100m, 200m backstroke and 400m individual medley specialist and freestyle swimmer Ivana Walterová will be making their Olympic debuts at the Games. Miroslav Machovič is hoping to improve on the 19th position he took in Atlanta four years ago.
Again, Moravcová is carrying the full burden of medal expectations in the pool. "While Martina heads to Sydney for a sure medal, the others will be trying hard to defend their personal limits, which are in most cases Slovak swimming records," says Anton Zérer, spokesman for the Slovak Olympic Committee.
During the last two Olympic Games, success slipped past Moravcová; in Barcelona at just 16 she was too young to compete against more experienced swimmers, while in Atlanta she missed out on the final by a couple of hundredths of a second in both the 200m freestyle and 200m individual medley. However, she says that the experience she gained was invaluable and her chances in these Olympics are good.
Moravcová will compete in 50, 100, 200m freestyle, 100m butterfly and 200m individual medley.
But even though Moravcová's achievements point to an experienced female swimmer who can win almost any competition, the Olympics represents a great challenge for her. She is heading to Sydney in optimistic mood. "The Olympics are only every four years and they are the culmination of four years of training and self-discipline. If I got a medal, one of my dreams would come true. And it would be the first [Olympic] swimming medal for Slovakia."
A family tradition
Moravcová lives with her family in a three-room apartment in the western Slovak town of Piešťany, but is currently training in Dallas where she has recently completed a master's degree in Applied Economics. When Moravcová comes to Slovakia, her mother, who coaches juniors at the swimming club in Piešťany, takes over from her American coach Steve Collins.
"It is very easy to train Martina, any coach in the world would like to train her," her mother says. "Martina is goal-oriented, strict with herself and cooperates very well. She is a professional sportswoman."
Both Moravcová's parents were successful backstroke swimmers. Her father was a former Czechoslovak champion, just missing out on the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and her mother came second in the 1968 Slovak championships in the former Czechosolovakia. But life in a family with a proud swimming tradition has both its pluses and minuses for the 24 year-old.
"It is both an advantage and disadvantage to grow up in a family where everybody is a swimmer," says Moravcová. "The advantage is in the 100% support and understanding from the closest members of your family, but on the other hand, when you want to have a break from swimming, you don't get it, because everybody keeps on talking about it."
Moravcová's mother has had success not only with her children - son Karol (15) won bronze at this year's Slovak swimming championships - but also with her team, which performed well at this year's European junior championships.
The family has got used to seeing Moravcová return from almost every competiton with medals, but they admit they still keep a close eye on her improving times. Moravec senior, also an international swimming referee, is proud of his daughter's achievements and is quick to point out that his and his wife's own achievements pale in comparison to their daughter's. "Martina is an incomparably better swimmer than we were," they both admit.
While her youth was a feature of her first Olympic experience, an early start to swimming, at age five, allowed Moravcová to breed a healthy disrespect for swimmers older than her, even if only by a few years, a mindset which has only recently abated. "When she was 18," her father recalls, "she would look at a 20-year old swimmer and said 'What does this old lady want to do here?' But now she is 24, and she can see swimmers aged 33 and she seems to be OK about it," he jokes.
For the Olympic hopeful, swimming represents both a profession and a hobby. She devoted all her childhood and youth to the sport she loves. But in spite of her continuing desire to push herself as far as she can, and her plans to stay swimming at least until the World Championships next year, she hints that there may be a change in the future.
"My entire present life is devoted to swimming," she says. "But I cannot do that forever. I have finished my studies and I hope, one day, to exchange my sports career for something else."