July 26, 2012
LONDON - For Crimson Tide head swimming and diving coach Dennis Pursley, the week that follows Friday's Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London marks the culmination of four years of intensive, planning, preparation and hard work.
Pursley, who begins his tenure as Alabama's mentor in August, is the head coach of the British Olympic swim team and will guide the host team of this Olympiad over the eight days of swimming competition in the Aquatics Centre with an eye on finishing in the top three in the medal count when all is said and done.
"Our goal is just to make it the best Olympics the British have ever seen. I think that's a realistic goal," Pursley said. "The U.S. would have to roll over and play dead not to finish on top in the medal count. That's not going to happen. Australia is probably sitting in a strong position for second. But we think finishing in the top three is not an unrealistic goal to strive for. It might be a bit of a longshot -- there are a couple of teams a little in front of us -- but we're in striking distance."
This isn't the Louisville, Ky., native's first experience with the Olympics. He coached six swimmers to berths on the United States Olympic team in 1980, including butterfly legend Mary T. Meagher, who exploded onto the world scene under his tutelage. He then went on to work with Australian Institute of Sport leading up to the 1984 games in Los Angeles, where his athletes accounted for half of Australia's medal count in swimming.
He was named director of the U.S. National Team in 1989 and Team USA finished first in the medal count in both men's and women's competitions in all three Olympiads of his tenure. That span culminated with 33 medals, including 14 gold, at the 2000 Olympics which was described by "Sports Illustrated" as the greatest team performance of all time.
Pursley won't be the only one with Crimson Tide ties at the Olympics. Rising Tide junior Kristel Vournawill be making her Olympic debut. The All-American and UA school record holder will swim the 100m butterfly for her native Greece. Vourna has been the Tide's top swimmer over the last two years, posting the fastest time in school history in the 100 butterfly by nearly a second. She is also part of the Tide's school record holding 200 and 400 medley relays.
Two-time NCAA Champion Vlad Polyakov is back for his third Olympiad, swimming the 100m breaststroke for Kazakhstan. He will likely also swim on the 400m medley relay. Polyakov won the NCAA 200 breaststroke championship in 2005 and 2007. Joining Polyakov in the breaststroke events will be former Tide All-American Hunor Mate, who will represent Austria for the second time at the Olympics, swimming the 200m breaststroke.
Alabama All-American Arlene Semeco, who still holds the UA school record in the 50 freestyle she set in 2005, will compete in her third Olympics in London. Swimming for her native Venezuela, she’ll hit the water in the 50m and 100m freestyles.
Vourna won’t have to wait long to get things going in London. The women’s 100m butterfly gets underway Saturday as one of the first events, with the preliminaries and semifinals. Polyakov will also get things started on Saturday with the prelims of the 100m breaststroke. Mate will swim the prelims of the 200m breaststroke on Tuesday. Semeco will swim the prelims of the 100m freestyle on Wednesday and the prelims of the 50m freestyle on Friday.
The Tide will also make its presence felt on the track, where, in the second week of the games, former UA NCAA champion Kirani James is predicted to contend for a medal in the 400m.