MISSION VIEJO — Marcin Malinski knows just how fortunate he is these days. The signs are evident in the crumbling infrastructure of Polish swimming.
Malinski, 19, returned to his native country last summer and saw progress in the government and the business community. Life, he said, is getting a little better for the people, which made him glad.
Then he saw the swim community--even his own club team--and was sad. There but for the grace of a good swim stroke goes he.
"There were 40 of us who trained together in junior high school," Malinski said. "I'm the only one who is left. Many of the club teams are broke and there are a lot of swimmers who have nowhere to train."
So Malinski, who trains with the Mission Viejo Nadadores, counts his blessings.
Instead of struggling to survive in the swim drought of Poland, where money is tight and chances growing slimmer, he is preparing for the Olympics.
Malinski will compete in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys. He is one of four swimmers who have already qualified for the Polish team.
"I feel lucky to have come over here," Malinski said. "Only the best get to train outside of Poland. It has made a real difference for me."
A definite understatement.
Malinski, the son of a career soldier, is ranked 24th in the world in the 400 IM. He is not expected to win a medal in Barcelona this summer, but he should serve notice.
It has been a rapid climb up the swimming ladder for a kid who wasn't expecting to stay more than a year in the United States.
"Marcin came here on the junior program," Nadadores Coach Terry Stoddard said. "He was here basically to spend a year, enjoy the culture, train with us and then go home. He surprised everyone.
"In two years, he has moved from the junior national level to being ranked in the world. He got the fundamentals he didn't have and has exploded on the scene."
Little fanfare proceeded Malinski before he joined the Nadadores three years ago. His resume did not include formal training at a sports school, a traditional route to success in the former Eastern Bloc countries.
Instead, he had competed for a military club team, where he said he often feuded with his coach. The idea of training overseas was so remote, it didn't even enter his mind.
"I was having problems with my coach over training in Poland," Malinski said. "We would end up yelling at each other. It was very stressful. There were times when I would just skip practice."
Then came Malinski's big break, a sixth-place finish in the 400 IM at the European junior championships in 1989. Suddenly, the Polish swimming community took notice.
"The next day an official came to me and said, 'If you would like to go to Mission Viejo to train, we have an (airplane) ticket for you,' " Malinski said. "I said, 'When do I leave?' "
As it is, Malinski may be one of the last Polish swimmers to train in the United States. Since the break-up of the Eastern Bloc, the athletic programs have been reigned in because of a lack of funds.
Swimming has been one of the hardest hit.
"I went home last summer and friends who had been swimmers before are now looking for work," Malinski said. "The government still controls many of the clubs, but they have to raise a lot of their own money. Clubs have had to sell their pools."
There are seven swimmers from Poland training with the Nadadores, four of whom will compete in the Olympics. The most notable is Artur Wojdat, who won a bronze medal in the 400 freestyle in the 1988 Seoul Games.
He was the first Polish swimmer to win a medal.
Into this Warsaw-away-from-home came Malinski, a somewhat shy teen-ager three years ago.
"At first, I didn't think he was going to make it," said Wojdat, who was one of the first Polish swimmers to train with the Nadadores. "He was thin and didn't look that impressive. But he has worked hard. Hopefully, this will be the year for him."
Malinski had problems at first. He did not have a command of the English language, which made it difficult to make friends at Mission Viejo High School.
There was also an incident in which he and another swimmer were beaten up. The two had shaven their heads for a competition and were mistaken for skinheads, according to Wojdat.
"I was pretty homesick," Malinski said. "Artur took me aside and told me not to worry about all the personal stuff. He said to just swim hard and everything would work out."
Malinski has adjusted to school and was one of the top performers for the Diablo swim team, which won the Southern Section 4-A championship two weeks ago.
He won the 200-yard IM and 100 breaststroke at the finals. His time of 1 minute 49.13 seconds broke Jesse Vassallo's 4-A record (1:49.80), which had stood since 1979.
"For a while, Marcin didn't accept he was that good," Stoddard said. "What has made a difference is he not only realizes he's good, he wants to get better."
For Malinski, that means continuing his training in the United States.
"I remember skipping school to watch Artur swim in the 1988 Olympics," Malinski said. "When he won a medal, it was like a national holiday in Poland. I never dreamed I could make the Olympics, too. Coming here has made all the difference."
As luck would have it.