Before he started collecting earrings to go with his national swimming titles, before he came within a breath of the 100-meter breaststroke world record, before he waved the little American flag given to each swimmer at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis in March, Nelson Diebel sat with his mother in the admissions office of the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., and stared terror—all 240 pounds of it—right in the face.
This is an article from the June 29, 1992 issue
It was December 1986, and things had been going badly for the 16-year-old Diebel. His parents had divorced two years earlier, and he was still angry about it. Bright but hyperactive, he had marginal grades and the attention span of a five-year-old. Worse, he had a hair-trigger temper and a taste for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and petty theft. He had been kicked out of one East Coast prep school for beating up a kid, and the Peddie School was considering him only because of a lie on his application. Nelson Diebel was on an expressway to hell, and this was the last exit.
At Peddie all students are required to participate in some extracurricular activity. Did Diebel have a special skill that might make up for his bad grades and touchy temperament, the school wanted to know. Diebel wrote "swimming" on his application, recalling a period several years earlier when his mother, Marge, desperate to find something that would tire him out and make him sleep at night, had signed him up for a swim team. Though he frequently skipped swim practice, he made it often enough to clock a promising 1:08 in the 100-yard breaststroke when he was 12. Nevertheless, says Diebel, calling himself a swimmer at 16 was "probably one of the largest lies I have ever told in my life."
When the Peddie swim coach was brought in from practice to make the final call on his admission, Diebel's palms started to sweat. Chris Martin, 26, a 6'2" former Yale swimmer, had already had a long day, so he got right to the point. "The first thing I want you to know is that I am a tyrant!" he shouted at Diebel. "The second thing is, if there's going to be any fighting, it's going to be with me!" After a 10-minute harangue detailing the horrors that Diebel would face as a member of the Peddie swim team, Martin walked out. Diebel and his mother stared at each other. "Chris Martin was the answer to my prayers," says Marge. Nelson wasn't so sure.
When he arrived at Peddie two days later, there commenced a monumental clash of wills between swimmer and coach. "At the time," Diebel says, "I thought the only way I could be the person I wanted to be was to break every rule and to let no one control me or have any power over me. Then, all of a sudden, I run into Chris, who had a bigger ego and was a bigger controlmonger. There was a huge clash. Obviously, he won. Lucky for me."
The way Diebel figures it, if it hadn't been for Martin, he would be in jail—or dead—today. He certainly wouldn't be tossing back a breakfast of chocolate-chip pancakes, a vanilla shake and a Coke at a pancake house near the campus of Princeton University, from which he has taken a year's leave to train for the Olympics at the nearby Peddie Aquatic Club, which Martin also coaches. "I still think some rules need to be broken," says Diebel, playing with one of the six silver rings on his fingers. "But I'm no longer societally unacceptable. You can take me out to breakfast without me starting a brawl or something."
Indeed, a bike chain and brass knuckles seem to be the only accessories missing from his wardrobe, which tends toward mid-century hoodlum. He is particularly fond of a slightly tatty black leather jacket, which he often wears as a warmup. At a recent Olympic team gathering in Colorado Springs, Diebel wore all black, all weekend. "He even wore black cutoffs," says Olympic breaststroker Roque Santos. "Nobody wears black cutoffs."
But Diebel isn't the strong, silent type. He is a tireless talker from way back. "Nelson came out of the womb talking," says Marge, "and he hasn't stopped yet."
Mike Barrowman, the current world-record holder in the 200-meter breaststroke and a member of the 1992 Olympic team, loves Diebel's chattiness, partly because it is so rare among elite athletes. "He has a very whimsical attitude," says Barrowman. "He'll talk to you about any subject out of the blue."
When Diebel first showed up at swim practice at Peddie in 1986, he was a two-pack-a-day smoker who could go only a few laps before he would clutch the side of the pool and cough for several minutes. Under Martin's grueling four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week workouts, Diebel's swimming flourished; his hyperactivity mellowed; and the drinking, the smoking and the drug use abated.
A year and a half later, Diebel qualified for the '88 Olympic trials. There, he narrowly missed making the team, finishing fifth in the 100-meter breaststroke and eighth in the 200. "At that point I knew I could make the Olympics," he says.
About a week after the trials Diebel was still tapering down from his training regimen, but he was pumped nonetheless. Near the end of his lifeguard shift at the Peddie pool, he climbed onto the balcony railing 20 feet above the tile apron that surrounds the diving well and leaped five feet out and into the water. It was a thrill, so he did it again. The third time, he slipped on the railing and crashed onto the tile apron before sliding into the pool. One of the kids he had been guarding had to drag him from the depths. Diebel was breathing, but both of his wrists were shattered.
"I knew something like that was going to happen," Martin says. "When you taper Nelson, he goes crazy. And when he's really at his most hyper, he has this stupid walk." Martin flaps his arms as a frog might if it tried to strut. "I saw him walk by on his way to the pool, with his sunglasses on, and I said to someone, 'Nelson is wired today.' "
When he saw Diebel's hands folded over like dog paws, Martin was convinced Nelson would never swim again. "The X-rays looked like a jigsaw puzzle," Martin says. "There were cracks everywhere. I thought, How do you recover from that?"
In Diebel's case, by submitting to sheer torture. After 5½ hours of surgery, which included the insertion of one permanent and four temporary pins in his wrists, he spent eight weeks in casts and two weeks in physical therapy. Diebel then returned to the diving well, at first working only on his kicking motion while his still fragile wrists continued to heal. The only way he could get out of the pool without using his wrists was to hook his elbows through the pool ladder as he climbed up. Martin took this opportunity to test Diebel's determination. Ten minutes into one session the coach shouted, "Keep kicking," pulled all the ladders out of the pool, turned out the lights and left. From the balcony Martin watched Diebel for 20 minutes before he returned the ladders. "I thought, only an extraordinary person would put up with this," he says. "This kid is either going to quit or make something of himself."
The following spring Diebel won the 1989 national 200-yard breaststroke championship in Chapel Hill, N.C. Other swimmers were surprised by his training methods. "I asked him how long he had tapered before the meet," says Barrowman. "I usually do a week, week and a half. Nelson tells me he took it easy for 5½ weeks. I'm thinking, Yeah, right. During the next three weeks we all trained together for the Pan Pacifies, and most people were working really hard. Nelson, though, was in the pool for only about 10 minutes every day. Before the meet I told my coach, 'If Nelson swims well after an eight-week taper, I will quit, I will never swim again.' What does he do? He swims his best time ever."
"You hear rumors about certain swimmers," says Santos, "rumors like, Nelson's heart is such that he doesn't get worn down, or he just has more adrenaline than everyone else. I have no idea if that's true, and I try not to think about it when I race him. The guy's like a time bomb—you never know when he's going to go off and have a great race."
One thing that's sure to get Diebel ticking is a prerace argument with Martin. Before the '89 nationals, the two had squabbled over Diebel's desire to add a second earring to his left ear. (Martin had allowed the first gold hoop only after Diebel made the Peddie School honor roll in the fall of '87.) Martin finally told him he had to win the 200 at the nationals to get his earring. He did. "I didn't think that was possible, so soon after his accident," says Martin.
A year later, before the 1990 nationals, Diebel wheedled for a third earring. "Are you nuts?" bellowed Martin. "You already have more jewelry than my mother! This time you have to win both the 200 and the 100." He did.
The third gold hoop probably won't be joined by a fourth, because that might be "a bit much," says Diebel. Besides, earrings don't get much of a rise out of Martin anymore. "Now he gets upset about tattoos," says Diebel, revealing the Olympic-rings tattoo he got on his hip after he won the 100 breaststroke at the '92 Olympic trials. In the prelims he swam the race of his life, lopping .16 of a second off Steve Lundquist's eight-year-old American record of 1:01.65.
Six hours later, when Diebel touched first in the 100 final, lowering the American record to 1:01.40, Martin told him, "Nelson, God just paid you back for six years of me."
Now, just weeks before the Barcelona Games, chronic tendinitis in Diebel's right shoulder has forced him to cut down on his pool yardage. He will need to get in a lot of work to compete for the gold medal against the favorite in the 100 breaststroke, Norbert Rózsa of Hungary, who holds the world record of 1:01.29. At least six other swimmers who will be at Barcelona have come within half a second of that mark.
"With so many of us so close, it is the one who is most convinced he will win who will win," says Diebel. "I plan on being that person." Which leaves one burning question: How will Diebel adorn his body if he wins the gold? "I don't know yet," he admits. "One thing for sure, I won't be going for the nose ring."