July 23, 2012
Some people were born to face adversity. It calls, they answer and show it who is boss.
When you look at what Mateo De Angulo accomplished in just two years at Florida State, most would not think to look into the 2012 ACC Swimmer of the Year's past for clues to where he is today.
Swimming is not a major sport in De Angulo's native home of Colombia, which has made his journey more difficult than most swimmers in his quest to be the absolute best. Yet it's the adventure that has made him tough enough to conquer the challenges he's faced on his path to the 2012 London Olympic Games.
De Angulo swam in his first international competition at age 12, participating in the Pacific Cup; a junior meet for athletes from South American countries that border the Pacific Ocean. That early exposure to international competition led his parents, Eduardo and Jimena De Angulo, to find other training options for their son.
Beginning in 2006, De Angulo traveled to the United States in the summer to swim with his cousin, Andy De Angulo, at Miami Swimming. His family felt that this was his best chance to improve, be exposed to American swimming, and perhaps earn a scholarship for college. He even enrolled at a private school in while at home in Cali called Colegio Bolivar in order to get into routine of American schooling.
While with Miami Swimming, De Angulo qualified for junior and senior nationals, gaining the exposure necessary to be recruited by major NCAA Division I programs.
His cousin Andy mentored him during the recruiting process, taking him to those national meets and introducing him college coaches. Like any talented prospect, De Angulo had options. In the eyes of college coaches, De Angulo was a valuable target: an international swimmer without NCAA-type opportunities at home; U.S. national cut times without any major training under his belt, and international experiences.
He's A Diamond in the Rough
When it came time for a decision to be made, De Angulo chose the junior college path, enrolling at Indian River State College. In two seasons at IRSC, a perennial Florida power, he was a nine-time NJCAA national champion and captured the 2010 NJCAA Men's Swimmer of the Year award. Naturally, the big offers began rolling in.
"Mateo was definitely a positive, friendly person and he was all about team," Florida State head coach Neil Harper said. "He had a lot of potential. He was talented and extremely dedicated. I liked how personable he was and how he blended in well with the guys."
De Angulo found the fit he was looking for at Florida State, primarily because of the Seminoles' great tradition of developing distance swimmers. While he looked at other programs, he loved the dynamic of the FSU distance group, recognizing that he's be one of the top swimmers, but would get pushed by three or four teammates in practice and in meets.
"I chose FSU because it's a great place to be," De Angulo said. "The program is one of the best in the country. The distance program has produced some great swimmers and with the recruits coming in, that tradition will continue. "
From that moment he committed to the Seminoles, De Angulo couldn't wait to make an impact. After all, he was something special. In the fall of 2010 he contributed to one of the biggest victories in FSU history, winning the 1000-meter freestyle with a time of 9:06.48 in a stunning upset over Florida. He also posted a 4:26.22 readout in the 500 free against the Gators. With performances of that magnitude, the Seminoles' collective thoughts turned to the promise of the championship season in the spring.
De Angulo, however, encountered another obstacle.
He was determined ineligible for the spring. The transition from Indian River was a little tougher than he expected. The classes at Florida State were bigger and it was easier to get lost in the classroom, especially when he was used to being attended to more closely by his teachers.
"It was a tough first semester," De Angulo said. "But I learned to be a much better student after having to go through that."
That spring semester, De Angulo worked to get his studies back on track while training for a Grand Prix meet, before heading to compete in Shanghai at the FINA World Championships for Colombia.
Another road block, however, stood in the way.
De Angulo injured his wrist in a scooter accident before he could take to the international stage.
With a defective wrist and hefty event load of the 200, 400 and 800 free events, De Angulo had an uphill battle to make a case to compete in London. After his first two races, it looked as if he'd just come back to Tallahassee, finish out his senior year and call it a career. He's was tired, hurting and not happy with himself. With the 800 free left, De Angulo figured he'd have to come up with a new plan and fast.
"I decided to just block everything out for the 800," De Angulo said. "I just kept telling myself to just go out there and swim and don't think about anything, especially the pain. I was able to do that and was able to go my best time."
De Angulo swam an 8:05.98 mark, establishing a new Colombian national record and placing 23rd in the competition.
Another wall scaled.
Something to Prove
With a second wind of confidence, De Angulo returned to Tallahassee in the fall of 2011 with something to prove. Here was one of the fastest distance swimmers in the college ranks, who had competed against some of the world's best swimmers, he had never been to an ACC Championship or even qualified for NCAA's. As a Seminole, he knew he had so much more in store for himself.
"After sitting out that second semester I became so much stronger," De Angulo said. "Heading into my senior year I knew I had to make it up to my teammates and coaches by giving everything I could for my last year."
By the time November rolled around, the doubts of the previous season had faded. Day in and day out, De Angulo practiced and competed like a senior leader. His teammates noticed a change in his training; he was attacking tough sets and setting examples for the rest of the distance group. Simply put, he was making everyone around him better.
At the Georgia Tech Invite, De Angulo crushed the field in both the 500 free and 1650 free, posting NCAA A-standards, highlighted by his NCAA-leading 500 time of 4:15.43.
Half the battle was won. At that point, De Angulo set himself up to achieve the goals which eluded him a year earlier. He came back and worked harder than ever in order to even have a chance at succeeding at NCAA's. With his ticket punched for Seattle, all he needed to do was continue to be himself.
De Angulo put together some of the best postseason swimming in the history of FSU. He was the star of the ACC Championships, taking home ACC Swimmer of the Meet honors for his commanding gold medal performances in the 500 and 1650 free. Later, the conference would select De Angulo as the ACC Swimmer of the Year for his outstanding postseason swims and consistent dominance throughout the year.
His success continued at the NCAA Championships, where he garnered All-America honors in the 1650 free with a seventh place finish - breaking two school records in one race with a final time of 14:42.77 and at the 1000 split at 8:54.28.
"After the disappointment, he did have something to prove," Harper said. "We all had such high hopes and he felt like he let the team down. He came back and went above and beyond and ended up where he should. He had goals that drove him every day and he wanted to make it up to the team. From day one he set things straight and attacked it and he has a great attitude. He shifted his focus on school and swimming and had such a great perspective on everything."
Even as De Angulo rewrote the history of FSU distance swimming, his dreams were much bigger than being the best male swimmer in the ACC. It's something that every swimmer sets their sights on whenever they first commit to the sport. Even when he broke his hand at the age of seven and picked up the sport in order to help him heal, he knew he had a gift.
He wanted to be an Olympian.
Obviously, It's Not a Walk in the Park
After the college season was over, De Angulo prepared for answering London's call by staying in Tallahassee to train with the Seminoles and then-distance coach Gary Taylor. He had every reason to believe he had done enough to warrant an Olympic invitation.
In May, he attended the Charlotte Grand Prix, and despite swimming on such short rest, he was able to smash his own 1500-meter Colombian national record by posting a time of 15:29.06, jumping up significantly in the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA) rankings.
Throughout his journey, he had beaten two swimmers that would qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team - Andrew Gemmell and Peter Vanderkaay - at both the NCAA meet and the Charlotte Grand Prix.
The Olympics selection process is governed by FINA, which has oversight of five aquatic sports - swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, water polo and open water swimming.
For Colombia, it's a little different. In the United States, you qualify for Olympic Trials, you swim your race and the top two in each event make the Olympic Team. In a country like Colombia, the standard used to be that if you were the fastest in the nation and possessed an NCAA B- standard in any event, you went to the Olympic Games.
Back in December, those rules changed. FINA put a 900 swimmer cap on the Olympics, making the process even more selective.
Before the season, De Angulo had reason to be left out of those 900. After his stellar senior campaign there wasn't any doubt that he would be chosen. Simply stated, he was the fastest distance swimmer in Colombia history, with three national records and part of a fourth as a relay member. He accomplished two NCAA A-standards and placed in the top 10 in both the 500 and 1650 free at NCAA's.
FINA informed him that he wasn't among those 900.
"I was crushed when I found out that I wasn't going," De Angulo said. "I was heartbroken after I had just missed qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Games and I put so much work in to make it this time. I was so upset that I didn't make it, but I knew I did everything that I could."
Mateo handled his heartbreak like a grown man, telling himself that some things are just not meant to be and that everything happens for a reason. Utterly disappointed after months of training, De Angulo boarded a plane and went home to Cali, Colombia to be with his family.
It's Not Over, Until it's Over
On the morning of June 29, De Angulo was awakened by a phone call from his father. Still in a sleepy state, he answered to his hear his father talking in a high-pitched, excitable tone. He quickly realized his father wasn't joking.
Eduardo was saying that dreams do come true and that his son was now an Olympian.
"I was in shock," De Angulo said. "We were all so excited. When both my parents got home that day, it was just an amazing feeling and we all just felt so relieved."
De Angulo was among the 900 FINA invitations after some athletes declined to compete in his event, moving him up the rankings in the 400 free.
"We had thought he did plenty to prove his worth, but he got caught up in the FINA quota," Harper said. "But his with his patience, he prevailed. When he did get the call Mateo was extremely overjoyed. This was a test for himself and in the end, all of the hard work was worth it. He's kicked it back into gear in order to compete at the Olympic Games in less than a week." The first thing De Angulo did after receiving the news - like many college students - was update his Facebook status. Within seconds, his teammates, coaches, colleagues, family and friends were showing their support by posting congratulatory messages and "liking" his status.
Hundreds of posts later, everyone who had previously felt De Angulo's disappointment, now shared in the joyous occasion. One of his former teammates, London native Charlotte Broadbent, shared a picture of the London Aquatics Centre and tagged De Angulo: "You'll be here!"
Although the only people De Angulo will be with on July 27th for his race are his Colombian teammates, Carolina Colorado and Omar Pinzon, he's going to feel the love and support of hundreds of people as he walks out on the pool deck at the Olympic Games.
"I'm looking forward to just stepping out for my race and feeling all of the adrenaline and nerves kick in," De Angulo said. "This is something that I've dreamed of my whole life and it's truly an honor."
After repeatedly answering adversity's call, De Angulo is just days away from the Olympic 400 free, anxious to tackle his dream.