Greece LightningBy Terrin Waack | 03/29/2015 11:16pm
With his 6-foot-6 frame, sophomore Kristian Gkolomeev stalks around the pool before each race. He gets himself mad and tries to scare his opponents as he stares them down, willing them to challenge him.
In those moments before he steps up on the starting block, the gentle Alabama swimmer that his coaches and teammates know him as disappears and is replaced by an intense competitor.
“You can see it in a look on his face,” sophomore Jack Hadjiconstantinou said. “You see how ripped he is and the way he stares at his opponents. I wouldn’t want to go against him.”
To Gkolomeev, everything else ceases to exist in that moment before the starting buzzer sounds. Then, he dives in and does what he does best: swim.
Originally from Athens, Greece, Gkolomeev had experience in the water before moving to the United States. His participation in the Olympics and other championships – the 15th FINA World Championship and the 2012 European Championship – was just the start of his professional swimming career.
Alabama swimming and diving head coach Dennis Pursley and associate head coach Jonty Skinner noticed Gkolomeev then, but it wasn’t until the 2012 Summer Olympics that they made contact with him. Gkolomeev said he knew if he wanted to become a better, more successful swimmer, he would have to work for it. He would have to learn from coaches and train with an actual team, which was unlike anything he had done before. So come Spring 2014, he joined the Alabama swimming and diving team and made a splash.
“I started swimming when I was 5,” Gkolomeev said. “My father was a swimmer. He was a really good Bulgarian swimmer.”
Gkolomeev's father swam for Bulgaria in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow at the age of 18 and then again at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, when he was 27.
As he grew up, Gkolomeev said he would go to the pool with his father, a swimming coach. At that point, he started to actually learn to swim for sport.
“At 12 and later, I started taking swimming more seriously,” he said. “At age 17, I realized I could do a lot of things, and I decided I didn’t want to just follow a sport – I wanted to build a career. So I did.”
In 2012, Gkolomeev placed 31st in the 100 freestyle race at the Summer Olympics in London. He said the 2012 Olympics were mainly for gaining experience.
“It was good because now I know how the Olympics are,” he said. “So for the next Olympics in Rio, I’ll be ready so I can race those guys.”
Coming to Alabama was a whole new experience, Gkolomeev said. When he swam in Greece, he would swim and train on his own. Now he has an entire team in the pool with him. That was the first thing he saw when he arrived – a team.
“A lot of times, people in his thoroughbred tend to be so egocentric where they just can’t deal with anybody else,” Skinner said. “Kristian is not that way. He’s the opposite of that – it makes him very refreshing.”
Although the team aspect was new to him, Gkolomeev adjusted and adapted quickly. Language was one of the main issues he had to overcome when first coming to the University. He’s not the only international athlete on Alabama’s swimming and diving roster though. Teammate Hadjiconstantinou is originally from Cyprus and able to speak fluent Greek with Gkolomeev.
“Sometimes, when we all have dinner together, [Gkolomeev and I] will start talking Greek in front of everybody else,” Hadjiconstantinou said. “They always say something like, ‘Stop. Stop talking in Greek. We are in America.’”
Both swimmers agreed it is nice to have someone there who can speak their native language. Hadjiconstantinou knew Gkolomeev before he officially came to the University, so that helped with his transition in the spring. Hadjiconstantinou said in the end, it was not hard for Gkolomeev to adapt to the cultural changes.
“One of the things we are not used to – it might be funny – but [Americans] have dinner very early, like at 5 p.m.,” Hadjiconstantinou said. “That is strange for us. We usually have dinner around 8 p.m., so we always take to-go boxes for later.”
Dinner times may be different, but one thing didn’t change coming to America – Gkolomeev can swim.
Although Pursley and Skinner saw Gkolomeev swim at the Olympics, it wasn’t until he came to Alabama that the two coaches were able to see him swim back and forth in a pool, not just swim his race.
“We knew that he was an exceptionally talented swimmer but also a very undeveloped swimmer,” Pursley said.
When Gkolomeev first came to campus, Skinner said he quickly noted he was pretty out of shape and did not have a whole lot of muscle tone. Since then, he has put on muscle weight, improved his technical skills and fitness and expanded his experience as a swimmer.
Skinner coaches the sprinters of the team, and he said Gkolomeev works with him for his personal training. With sprinters, Skinner said he has 10 criteria that a swimmer needs to have in order to have a shot at the Olympics. After testing Gkolomeev, Skinner said he met nine out of the 10 criteria.
“The only one that really remained was could he train,” he said. “Could he actually be able to train?”
Skinner said this was an important question that needed to be answered quickly since high-end sprinters don’t always have the mindset to train. It was midsummer when Skinner said he realized Gkolomeev could in fact train – he had the strength.
Gkolomeev said Skinner taught him a lot.
“He showed me what swimming is about and tried to explain to me what I was doing and why it was right,” Gkolomeev said. “I was doing things that were right, but I didn’t know why I was swimming that way. He’d make me understand why I’m good.”
Skinner himself was Alabama’s first NCAA champion as a freshman in 1975 for the 100 freestyle.
“That guy [Gkolomeev] is a way better athlete than I am or ever was,” he said.
Mainly, Skinner said he helped Gkolomeev improve his technique. The worked paid off. After only three months with Skinner, Gkolomeev was ready for the NCAA championship where he won the NCAA 50 freestyle title. He swam the race in 18.95 seconds.
“I was more shocked by the fact that he had a very poor start and was very disadvantaged from the start,” Pursley said. “If you give up a significant amount of time on the start, there’s just no time to get it back. Somehow, some way, he managed to close that gap.”
In all his time coaching, Pursley said he never saw such a thing happen at that level. It wasn’t so much winning that was the shock, as much as it was the comeback.
Gkolomeev said he wasn’t expecting to do so well so fast. He said winning is his favorite memory at Alabama and he said he still remembers the shock he felt once the race was over.
“I just realized that to be a national champion is a big thing for Americans, and it was really fun,” he said.
One year later, Gkolomeev stood on that podium again – this year, as champion of the 100 freestyle after placing second in the 50 freestyle – two seasons, two national championships, two years to go.
“The exciting thing about it is that he’s still very undeveloped,” Pursley said. “He has not yet scratched the surface of his potential yet.”
As his sprint coach, Skinner said he has a plan already laid out to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Gkolomeev said he has much more training to do before then, but it’s the end goal. His coaches and teammates believe he can do it.
“I wouldn’t bet against him,” Pursley said. “I wouldn’t bet, period, because it’s against the rules. If I could, I definitely wouldn’t bet against him.”