Lentaris looks to drown his pain

by Ryan Schuster

Junior Gophers men’s swimmer Manolis Lentaris wore an elated look on his face as he held up his left arm after last season’s improbable upset of defending national champion Michigan at the Big Ten championships in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Moments earlier he had finished in the top five of three individual events and competed on the winning 400- and 800-yard freestyle relay teams to help propel Minnesota to its first conference championship since 1926. It was one of the best moments in the 19-year-old’s life.
“That was probably one of the top five experiences that I’ve ever had,” Lentaris said. “It was really exciting winning the Big Ten when nobody expected we would.”
Little did he know that his life was about to take a turn for the worse. After the team’s victory celebration, they all climbed onto a metal bleacher at Michigan’s Canham Natatorium to pose for a team picture by the scoreboard. A few moments after the picture was taken, Lentaris’ right foot slid underneath the bleachers and became pinned. It took all 6’3″ 200 pounds of junior swimmer Ty Bathurst to lift the bleacher up so Lentaris could remove his foot. In the process, Lentaris severed the tendons to three of his toes.
Lentaris had surgery on his foot after the Big Tens to reattach the tendons. As a result, he was unable to swim at the NCAAs with the rest of his teammates. Instead he spent spring break in crutches. He called Gophers coach Dennis Dale for updates of the team’s performance from his foreign exchange host parent’s home in Portland, Ore. The native of Hania, Greece, hopes to make up for last year’s disappointment at the 1997 NCAAs, which will be held at the University Aquatic Center on March 27-29.
“It was kind of frustrating last year,” Lentaris said. “It will be nice this year to go back and swim. I’d like to better my times from my freshman year.”
As a freshman at the 1995 NCAAs, Lentaris placed seventh in the 500 freestyle and 11th in the 200 freestyle, earning All-America accolades in both events. He also swam the first leg of the 800 freestyle relay team that finished eighth in the nation and garnered All-America honorable mention.
Last year Minnesota took 12th at the NCAAs without Lentaris, the team’s lowest finish at the national meet in five years.
“You can’t lose one of your best athletes and not have it affect you,” Gophers coach Dennis Dale said. “It neutralized the (800 freestyle relay). Anytime you lose an All-American that you’re counting on, it’s a major factor.”
Just when the former All-American thought things were starting to turn around, lightning struck again. After Lentaris finished in the top six of the three events in which he was entered and swam on the Gophers’ second place 800 freestyle relay at the conference meet, he again suffered a bizarre injury.
He has recently complained of numbness in his left leg as well as cold and flu-like symptoms. So far the doctors have not been able to determine what is causing Lentaris’ discomfort. Lentaris seems to be recovering from whatever ails him and hopes to be able to practice today, which should bode well for Minnesota’s NCAA fortunes.
“If he can do as well as he did his freshman year, it will be a big factor,” sophomore swimmer Martin Zielinski said. “We miss a lot of versatility (when Lentaris is unable to compete).”
Lentaris has also suffered from various other injuries during his three years with the Gophers.
“He has been bothered by ailments like this all too often for him to achieve the kind of success that we would like him to achieve,” Dale said. “He has to have a more injury-free season for him to accomplish the kind of goals that he can accomplish.”
Before this season, Lentaris was hoping this would be the year that he put his injury problems behind him and showed what he could do when he wasn’t hurt. Because of his recent ailments, however, the junior freestyler has had to put his hopes of a dream season on hold. It also has weighed heavily on his mind and turned his usually outgoing and friendly personality into a slightly more reserved, but every bit as determined, persona.
“It kind of changed me a little bit,” Lentaris said. “But, it helped me realize how much I want to swim and put things in perspective.”
Through all his injuries, Lentaris has always found a way to bounce back. His physical difficulties have driven him to strive for more ambitious goals.
“It’s been frustrating at times, but missing time just makes me more hungry,” Lentaris said. “I want to prove that I can swim like I used to. You just have to put it behind you and start all over again. Whenever I’ve had problems, that’s what I’ve always done.”