The sport of swimming and a caring coach gave a troubled kid a focus that led all the way to two Olympic gold medals. Then Nelson Diebel walked away from his meteoric career to settle into an academic routine at Princeton.
His swimming career lasted about five-and-a-half seasons, and he swam only his freshman season for Princeton. Yet Nelson Diebel is recognized as one of the greatest swimmers Princeton has ever produced.
That's because in the 1992 Olympics he won the first gold medal awarded to an American in the Games, for the 100 breaststroke, then followed up with a team gold for swimming the breaststroke leg of the 4/100 medley. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Then he walked away from swimming.
Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs, Ill., he was "thrown out of" Lyons Township High School for fighting, according to Diebel. His mother sent him to the Kent School in Connecticut, where he "lasted six weeks" before being thrown out, also for fighting.
He then applied to the Peddie School, in Hightstown, N.J., where he thought to himself "I've got to tell them I can do something. Prep schools in November aren't looking for disciplinary cases."
"I liked swimming, so I told [Peddie swimming coach] Chris Martin that I swam," remembers Diebel. Martin arranged for his admission because he was "looking for bodies for the swim team," but told Diebel "if you're doing any fighting, you're doing it with me. Chris was about six foot four, so I wasn't fighting," says Diebel.
Martin put him on a rigorous training program. "I trained long and hard," he says. "I liked swimming so much I would do anything to keep swimming," including studying. "Chris would tell me to get a certain grade, and I would get it."
"I didn't start swimming until I was 15," says Diebel. "I got average good pretty fast. It took a while to get really good." By senior year in high school he was ranked second in the world in the 200 breaststroke, and schools such as the University of Texas and the University of Michigan recruited him. But he applied early decision to Princeton, where he says he was not recruited, and was admitted.
"It had the combination of swimming and academics I was looking for," explains Diebel. "And Peddie was right down the road." Legendary coach Rob Orr "let me keep a different focus." For example "the team would be training for the HYP (Harvard Yale Princeton) meet, I would be training at Peddie for the Pan-American Games," he says.
The arrangement worked. In March 1992, he swam the 100-meter freestyle in 54.48 seconds, setting the American record. But it came at a cost. When he started training in high school "I had bad technique," says Diebel. "It weakens things. I had a repetitive stress injury" in his shoulder.
He also had a decision to make. "Get surgery or suck it up, make this my one run" for the Olympics. He chose the latter. Having "access to the training room helped me deal," with the decision.
Winning the gold medals was "the end of a very personal journey," says Diebel. "I was not into the self-promotion thing." When the Sports Illustrated cover came out, he was "backpacking around Europe for two weeks."
Similarly, when he returned to Princeton he "wasn't as enamored" of swimming for Princeton "because of the shorter pool (Olympic pools are 50 meters, college pools 25 yards). It wasn't swimming. It was turning. It was hard to come back after the Olympics," he concludes.
Academically he felt "intellectually fulfilled at Princeton. It's an insane opportunity. The brains you get to pick, it's just astounding. I had a class with [Soviet expert] Stuart Cohen, and two days later he's on 'Nightline.'"
Up until several years ago Diebel gave speeches and ran clinics around the country, a number of them for free for such groups as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Settling in Delaware, Diebel is now in the income tax preparation business and recently started coaching. "I really enjoy coaching," he says.
"Princeton athletically fit perfectly," concludes Diebel. "Intellectually it fit me too."
— Stephen Eschenbach