Although he could have gone to any of the nation's swimming powers, Hall of Famer Tony Corbisiero is not convinced he would have become an NCAA champion anywhere but Columbia.
Tony Corbisiero was a New York Public School Athletic League (PSAL) swimming champion throughout high school, won the YMCA nationals in the 1650-yard freestyle, and was a high school All-American his junior and senior year. He was offered scholarships to Duke, UCLA and Florida, among other schools.
But his high school coach, Charlie Zehil, drummed the Ivy League into his consciousness. "You will go to an Ivy League school. Some day you won't swim anymore, and you'll still have an Ivy League degree," Corbisiero remembers him saying. Corbisiero's brother, Richard, was at Columbia, and wanted him to go there. So he applied to Columbia and Harvard.
Columbia accepted him and Harvard rejected him. He's philosophical now, but at the time it hurt. "I felt rejected, not good enough," he recalls, but "at the time they had some of the greatest distance swimmers in the country, including [Olympic medalist] Bobby Hackett, and I didn't understand that." What he did understand, however , was that "I was going to prove them wrong."
His opportunity to do that arrived early freshman year. "It was my first dual meet, Harvard at home, my family and friends were there," remembers Corbisiero. But Harvard coach Joe Bernal "stacked Hackett and the great distance swimmers against me." He finished fourth. "Joe Bernal was smiling, and all my new Columbia friends were thinking 'he's supposed to be a great swimmer?'"
Corbisiero allayed their concerns. That year he finished fifth in the 1650-yard freestyle at the NCAA Championships, the highest finish for a Columbia swimmer since 1945. He followed with six Eastern Intercollegiate Swimming League (EISL) titles in four different events -- the 1650 freestyle in 1981, the 500 and 1650 freestyle in 1982, and the 200, 500 and 1500 freestyles in 1983. He even gained a measure of satisfaction against Harvard his sophomore year by beating Bobby Hackett. "The only race Hackett lost in four years," Corbisiero recalls.
In 1983 he won the NCAA 1650 freestyle championship in a world-record time of 14:46.29. In doing so he became the first Columbia swimmer to claim an NCAA title since Eugene Rogers won the 220-yard freestyle in 1945. No male Columbia swimmer has won an NCAA championship since.
Columbia played an essential role in Corbisiero's swimming accomplishments. Professsors "bent over backwards to work within my swimming obligations," says Corbisiero. "I'd even receive notes from President McGill saying how proud they were. I don't know if I would have won an NCAA championship if I wasn't at Columbia."
Graduating with a degree in English in 1983 Corbisiero, by then a member of the U.S. National Team, planned to train for the Olympics. "The owner of an upstart swimsuit company offered to let me work and train, so I went into the sportswear business," he says. The company eventually became the swimsuit brand of adidas, and Corbisiero rose to become vice president of sales for Arena/LeCoq Sportif, a subsidiary. Then fate intervened.
Corbisiero's grandfather founded Riccardo's, an Astoria, Queens restaurant and caterer, in 1951, and by 1992 the "family was looking for a grandson to continue the business." Corbisiero seized the opportunity. "My dad said 'you have an Ivy League degree, stay in the corporate world,'" he remembers, but "I realized I didn't want to be a corporate warrior."
Going from adidas to Riccardo's was, according to Corbisiero, like working in "a big pizzeria. I didn't know pastafazool from striped bass," he recalls, "but I knew I was a people person and could make it hum." After working for his uncle for several years, he purchased the business. Closing the restaurant and focusing on catering, Riccardo's is now a full-service banquet facility. Apparently he learned the business well, for the New York Restaurant Association named him its "Caterer of the Year" for 2003-04.
Renewing his ties to Columbia, Corbisiero has joined a swimming advisory committee, to "help [current coach] Jim Bolster set up fundraising. We raised more in the past three years than has ever been raised. We hope to raise enough for a 50-meter pool." When he heard about the new Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame "I thought wow, I wonder if I could be one of these people [inducted]?"
He didn't have anything to worry about. Joining fellow inductees including Olympic gold medal winner Cristina Teuscher and the NFL's Marcellus Wiley under the rotunda of Low Library, "I thought 'the last time I sat in this room was at freshman orientation, and the dean was warning us to be serious in our studies.'"
A lot has happened since then, and Corbisiero's received many honors, but "this one means the most."
— Stephen Eschenbach