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OLYMPIC DREAMS

'Mission Viejo's Quiet Olympians

January 11, 2000|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Kaitlin Sandeno and Aaron Peirsol qualify for the U.S. Olympic swim team, everyone with a television set will know who they are. But three students at Mission Viejo High already have qualified to swim in Sydney, and the kids sitting next to them in third period probably have no idea.

The trio trains with the Mission Viejo Nadadores. Come Sydney, however, club colors will be exchanged for national colors.

Senior Juan Veloz, 17, swims for Mexico. Senior Carlo Piccio, 18, swims for the Philippines. Junior Torwai Sethsothorn, 17, swims for Thailand.

"I'm pretty proud," Sethsothorn said, "but I just keep quiet about it. I don't want to tell anyone, 'Hey, I'm going to the Olympics.' "

Said Piccio: "We just try to keep humble. I don't like saying I'm going to the Olympics. I just keep it to myself."

Will they win medals? Probably not. Veloz, who won the 200-meter butterfly in an invitational meet last week in China, ranks 25th in the world in his event. Sethsothorn ranks 36th in the 400-meter individual medley. Piccio, who will swim the 400-meter IM and the 1,500-meter freestyle, does not rank among the top 100 in either event.

But perhaps no medal can sufficiently recognize the enormous personal sacrifice the swimmers have made to honor their countries, leaving friends and family far behind for the promises of better coaching, better pools and better times. For Sandeno and Peirsol, home is a short drive from the pool. For Piccio and Sethsothorn, home is a 20-hour flight.

"They didn't have facilities like this at home," Piccio said. "Everyone was slower than I was. Here, everyone is faster than I am."

Said Sethsothorn: "It's my pleasure to train with Chad Carvin. He's a national champion."

While Piccio has aunts living in Tustin and Sethsothorn has an uncle living in Cypress, the two reside with host families arranged by the Nadadores. An International Olympic Committee scholarship helps Sethsothorn pay club dues and living expenses; a grant from the Philippine government helps Piccio. The responsibility weighs particularly heavily upon Piccio, who will be a one-man men's swim team for his country.

"It makes me want to swim faster," he said. "I know they're still rooting for me, even though I'm not there."

By the time they swim in Sydney in September, Piccio and Sethsothorn will have lived in the U.S. for more than two years. They plan to return home eventually, but they marvel at the chance to get a free education at an American university simply by swimming fast enough to earn an athletic scholarship.

"It's the best thing if you're looking out for your future," Sethsothorn said. "It's not just swimming. It's the school. When you graduate, you'll have a good opportunity when you go back home."

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