Salukis embrace Olympic experience

Swimming coach Rick Walker said he enjoyed his time at the Summer Olympics and would go back if given the opportunity, but that is not his main goal.

“If my work brings me to that, fine,” he said. “I’m more concentrated on trying to get our kids there.”

Saluki swimmers, Csaba Gercsak, Pamela Benitez and Mazen Aziz went to London to compete in their respective competitions this Olympic season. Walker coached Egyptian Aziz in the 10 km. marathon. Both Gercsak and Benitez will return for the Salukis’ 2012-13 season.

It was the first Olympic experience for Walker, who had a chance to swim in the 1980 games but could not because of the United States boycott.

“In 1980 we held the trials, and I did not make the team, but nobody did,” Walker said. “We boycotted and nobody went. That was kind of my year. I felt like I had a reasonable shot and I still wanted to go.”

Walker said he relished his first trip to the games — particularly being in the company of athletes around the world who worked relentlessly to get there. He said he also enjoyed seeing how similar all the competitors were, even across cultural barriers and in the presence of world-class athletes.

“I think in the (Olympic) Village everybody was just like everybody else,” he said. “Kobe Bryant could go down to go eat and, while people wanted to talk to him or get a picture, he wasn’t the biggest star there,” he said.

Hungarian Csaba Gercsak swam alongside SIU teammate Mazen Aziz in the 10 km. marathon and finished six places ahead of him in 18th.

“Mazen is a good friend of mine,” Gercsak said. “It was really special that we both made the Olympics, but in the water we compete against each other, so I don’t treat him differently than anybody else.”

It was Gercsak’s second Olympic appearance, as he also competed in the 10 km. marathon during the 2008 Beijing games.

He also won bronze in last year’s International Swimming Federation World Championships 25 km. marathon in Shanghai. Of all the games’ spectacle and hoopla, Gercsak said it is the competition that he will remember most.

“The race was in my mind all the time. It was my second Olympics, so I kind of knew what to expect,” he said. “Obviously, I had a little more pressure on me, but it mostly came from the feeling that the world was watching.”

Though Gercsak enjoyed his time at the Olympics, he is not focused on competing in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games.

“Right now, I am not really thinking about Rio,” he said. “I will be competing next year at the World Championships in Barcelona. I still have plans with swimming, but I don’t really plan four years ahead.”

Pamela Benitez, from El Salvador, swam in the women’s 800 meter freestyle and finished in 33rd after the first heat at 9 minutes and 2.66 seconds.

Benitez, who does not typically swim in longer distance competition, only swam in one event greater than 500 meters last season. Against Washington University, she swam the 1,000 meter and finished at 10:13.85.

Coach Walker said he is proud of his Olympians, and he enjoys watching his swimmers progress.

“Every good grade that we get, every good swim that we get, every challege we overcome, I get equal sense of reward and a sense of accomplishment,” he said.

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