When Sergey Mariniuk returned home to Moldova after the Barcelona Olympic Games, some of the swimming pools in his country didn't have water. Others were filled with chemicals or locked. No one knew who had the keys.
Mariniuk, a member of the 1992 Commonwealth of Independent States Olympic swim team, gave up the sport. He became a taxi driver. But after he was robbed at gunpoint, he decided swimming was safer. He secured lodging with a family from Santa Clara he met at a meet two years ago, and he spent his last rubles on the $1,000 air fare.
Within a few months, he regained his physical conditioning, and on Thursday he broke away at the 200-meter mark en route to winning the 800-meter freestyle in the Swim Meet of Champions at Mission Viejo.
Mariniuk, 24, finished in 8 minutes 19.29 seconds, 3.7 seconds ahead of Chad Carvin of Laguna Hills.
"What's the reason for improvement?" Mariniuk asked aloud. "You have no worries. You have food. You can be at practice on time. You do not have to wait in line three hours to get gas for your car."
In typical style, four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans dominated the women's 800 freestyle, touching in 8:37.79, almost 25 seconds ahead of Melissa Knox, a 14-year-old from Canada.
Although Evans, 21, of Placentia is accustomed to the small crowd and quiet atmosphere, it contrasted sharply to her recent two-week European trip.
In Barcelona, she heard, "Ole, ole, ole" each time she turned her head to breathe.
"Oh my gosh," Evans said. "It was so exciting! The stands were full every night."
Not that Evans minded the business-as-usual American approach.
"I never expect (large, vocal crowds)," she said. "That's asking too much. There are so many diversions in America. The important thing with no crowd is to keep pushing yourself."
Evans' ability to do that surprises her, particularly with two Olympics behind her and the next so far away.
"I think the reason is because (Coach) Mark (Schubert) is so cool about it," Evans said. "All the things he said 'no' to before Barcelona, he is saying 'yes' to (now). It was OK to go to Europe. It was OK to go to New York a few days after I got back. With my training broken up, I feel more motivated."