International swimming recruits ride U’s waves

Ryan Schuster

Perhaps the most intriguing storyline surrounding the Minnesota Challenge swimming meet during the weekend involved two athletes who aren’t even members of either Gophers swim teams.
Not yet, anyway.
The effectiveness of this pair of prized international recruits at the meet actually outshined the performances of many of swimmers who are current Gophers.
Certainly, the performances of Brazilian men’s swimmer, Alexandre Massura, and Andrea Simakova, a native Czech Republic women’s swimmer, were long overdue.
However, Massura and Simakova had envisioned themselves competing with the Gophers, not against them.
They hoped to swim for Minnesota this year, but there’s a little something they had to worry about first — becoming academically eligible.
After signing a national letter of intent to swim with the Gophers this season, Massura took his SAT and English as a second language tests last spring. If he had passed both he wouldn’t be on the outside looking in as he is now.
The native of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, has been living in Minnesota for the past three months and had visited the United States only once before. He has struggled on his English portions of the tests. To improve his skills, Massura has been studying in the English as a Second Language Program at Kaplan College. Because of that, he can’t practice with the Gophers under NCAA rules. Instead, he practices with a local club team.
“Anytime a person goes out of his way to try to develop the necessary skills, I’m impressed,” Gophers men’s coach Dennis Dale said of Massura.
Simakova, meanwhile, transferred to Minnesota this winter after two years of law school in the Czech Republic. She hoped to swim with Minnesota after the team’s training trip in December, but was ruled ineligible by the Big Ten.
The conference stated that Simakova did not make “normal progress” last year because she took a quarter off of school to train with the Czech national team. Minnesota questioned the ruling and petitioned the Big Ten to change it’s position. The decision was upheld; however, Simakova was allowed to receive a scholarship and practice with the team this year.
Both swimmers hope to make up for their academic shortfalls by showcasing their talent when they become eligible to swim for Minnesota.
Massura has been a member of the Brazilian national team for the last five years and will compete with that squad in April at the Watersport Championships. He decided to come to the United States before his national team got here to improve his language skills and train at the same time. Massura won a gold medal at the 1995 Pan American games as a member of Brazil’s 400-meter medley relay team.
Massura competed for Brazil in the 1996 summer Olympic games in Atlanta, swimming the second leg of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay that finished fourth. The team finished behind the United States, Russia and Germany — only 1.1 seconds away from winning a bronze medal.
“At the Olympics, I was swimming very well,” Massura said. “I hope that next year I can help the (Gophers) team.”
Not surprisingly, both swimmers had little trouble over the weekend competing against the Gophers’ reserves and Division III schools Gustavus and St. Thomas.
Massura won the 100-yard backstroke competition in 50.38 seconds, more than a second ahead of the second-place finisher.
“It’s nice to see him compete and swim that fast,” senior tri-captain Mitch Henke said. “I think (the Minnesota Challenge) gives some of the younger guys a good feel for next year.”
Simakova won the 200 butterfly on Saturday by two full pool lengths over her nearest competitor. She set a new meet record and would have qualified for the NCAA championships if she would have been competing with Minnesota.
Gophers junior, and fellow Czech countryman, Olga Splichalova, approached Simakova after the race and congratulated her on the record time. This weekend was only the third time in Simakova’s life that she swam in a pool with yard markings instead of meters.
“She doesn’t really know yards yet, but I told her, This is a really good time for you,'” Splichalova said.
Simakova and Splichalova grew up only an hour apart in the southern part of the Czech Republic and have known each other for the past 10 years. The duo also swims together on the Czech Republic national team.
Both Massura and Simakova appear to have adjusted well to swimming in America, but the language barrier has presented more of a problem for the talented international tandem. They both speak broken English and have a hard time translating some words into their native tongues. Neither swimmer had spent an extended amount of time in the United States before moving to Minnesota.
“It’s hard for me because I’ve just been here about six weeks,” Simakova said. “I can understand (other people), but my English is terrible. I can’t even speak.”
In addition to trying to conquer a foreign language, Simakova also has a mountain of school work to finish before she can swim for Minnesota. Since only 60 of her credits transferred to Minnesota, she will need to accumulate 57 more by the start of fall quarter to be eligible to compete for the Gophers next season.
Massura also has plenty of studying to do for the English proficiency and American academic tests he needs to pass. He has signed a second letter of intent to swim with Minnesota and hopes that by staying in the United States and studying English, he will be able to pass the tests before next season’s start.
Despite having to overcome numerous academic and language-related obstacles, Massura’s and Simakova’s dream of competing for the Gophers next season still lives.