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Barcelona Beat: An Excitable Boy

July 26, 1992

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) _ Most official biographies of Olympic athletes begin by listing records and accomplishments. Nelson Diebel’s bio begins by noting his car accidents and broken bones.

Not every competitive swimmer occasionally wears a tatty black leather jacket and cutoff black jeans as a warmup suit. Or celebrates his swimming victories by adding another earring in his ear and an Olympic tattoo on his hip.

Or cheerfully describes himself as ″borderline suicidal.″

So now meet Nelson Diebel, the first American to win a gold medal at the Barcelona Games.

The 22-year-old Diebel, described in some Olympic previews as ″a former juvenile delinquent from Chicago″ was a surprise winner in the 100-meter breaststroke Sunday, beating a strong field that included world record holder Norbert Rozsa.

Diebel, who was third at the 50-meter turn, stormed back to set an Olympic record of 1:01.50.

″It’s a great rush to have done it and gotten the gold and everything,″ Diebel said, an American flag bandana covering his shaved head. ″I wish I could do it all over again. It’s like a drug, you know. It’s the best high you could ever get.″

Diebel knows of what he speaks. He talks openly of a drug and alcohol problem from age 12 to 16. The drug use was mostly confined to marijuana; ″hard drugs scare me,″ he said.

The alcohol: ″Anything, depending on the night.″

Diebel credits his mother, Marge, a stockbroker, for forcing him off his personal highway to hell. She insisted he go to prep school to get him away from the bad crowd he was running with.

After he was kicked out of one school for fighting in his first semester, his mother tried to get him into the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J. When the school expressed doubts about his poor grades and bad attitude, Diebel claimed a non-existent prowess in the swimming pool.

It was that lie that may have saved him.

The swimming coach was Chris Martin, a big man with a forceful personality who reined in his new charge.

″He made me look at what I was doing to myself and realize how foolish and what a waste it was,″ Diebel said.

Diebel has cleaned up his act, majoring in history at Princeton. Still, he has a manner that suggests something else. His record of car accidents and his kind of downtown strut suggest he might have shaved his head even if he never came near a pool.

Diebel, his friends and his family all say he’s just an excitable boy. His mother has been quoted as saying he was born talking and hasn’t stopped since.

″I’m very hyper,″ Diebel said, ″especially during the taper. I have too much energy. I have to control it.″

The taper is the time swimmers refer to when they scale down their hours of daily practice to prepare for a meet. The lull can turn some into jittery wrecks, and Diebel says he is a prime example.

Six days after he lost in qualifying trials for the 1988 Olympic trials, Diebel was working as a lifeguard at the Peddie pool. He climbed a railing and began diving in.

″It’s lots of fun. It’s a rush,″ he said.

On his third try he slipped and fell 20 feet, hitting the tile and sliding into the pool. One of the kids he was supposed to be watching had to drag him out of the pool. Both his wrists were broken. It took a five-hour operation and several pins to put them right.

For months afterward, though, Diebel couldn’t use his hands to get out of the pool. He had to use his elbows like grappling hooks on the pool ladder.

″Chris says I’ve got nine lives,″ Diebel said. ″Actually, he says I’ve got two left.″

Still, given all the troubles he has seen, Diebel doesn’t consider Sunday’s victory a miracle.

″Like everyone else here I put my time in the pool. I put my time in the weight room. That’s what gets you here,″ he said. ″That’s what makes you win.″

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