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Friday, June 2, 2000

Canuck butterflyer has iron will
It's no surprise that Edmonton swimmer Shamek Pietucha is willing to sacrifice a whole lot to get what he wants. Great sacrifices run in the family.

Back in 1982, when Pietucha was six, his family left its native Malborg, Poland, for a holiday in Austria.

"We never went back and left everything behind," Pietucha said this week after qualifying for the Canadian Olympic swim team in the 200-metre butterfly. "Including my brother."

The Polish government, to discourage defection, granted everyone in the family an exit visa, except four-year-old Patryk. But for the sake of a more promising future for their family, Sabina and Kaz Pietucha went ahead with the defection plan.

"We hid him with my grandmother when we left and eventually she smuggled him out of Poland and into Austria, and then met us in a refugee camp," said Shamek, The Killer Butterflyer. "And then we got our visas to come to Canada."

But the real sacrifice came after they arrived in the North America. Kaz, a veterinarian, was forced to redo his degree. Shamek said his mom, a microbiologist with a PhD, had her degree downgraded and had to settle for a job that was well below her educational standing.

With two young mouths to feed, there were some lean times in the Pietucha household. But the family persevered. Today, Kaz is a vet with the federal Department of Agriculture and Sabina works in a high-tech lab.

"It's pretty admirable," Shamek said of his parents. "They've worked hard and sacrificed and I guess it's carried over to me and the way I live my life. I'm willing to sacrifice to get what I want."

That sacrifice has paid off, both in the pool and out. On Wednesday, Pietucha realized his dream of making the Olympic team by winning the 200 fly in one minute 59.79 seconds. A day earlier, the 22-year-old swim star broke Tom Ponting's 12-year-old Canadian record (1:58.14) with a time of 1:58.08. And he did all that despite being diagnosed, just a month before, with swelling of the pericardium sac around his heart, a condition that left him in pain, out of breath and perpetually tired. But with the Olympic trials just four weeks away, he had to keep training. And this week, in grand style, he came through.

Out of the water, things are also looking good. A graduate of the University of Virginia, and the 1999 NCAA champion in the 200 fly, Pietucha recently was accepted into the University of Calgary medical school.

All that's left is a great showing in this September in Sydney, where Pietucha believes a medal is a possibility. Not bad for kid who felt about as buoyant as a rock during his first few years with the Edmonton Keyano Swim Club.

"I started at 12 (late for a national-team swimmer), and I sucked," Pietucha said with a laugh. "I was awful."

That's where the sacrifice kicked in. While his friends watched cartoons at night and on weekends, and hung around with their pals at the mall, Pietucha worked hard at his swimming and his studies.

Still, the easy-going, 6-foot-3, 187-pound swimmer was no world-beater early in his national-team career, although he did miss the 1996 Olympic qualifying standard by only 4/10ths of a second in the 100 fly.

Nobody seemed overly impressed with the big Polish kid from Canada, including Virginia head coach Mark Bernadino, who offered Pietucha just a partial scholarship to the school.

"But that wasn't any good," said Pietucha, who has a V tattooed behind his right shoulder and a Maple Leaf over his heart. "My parents couldn't afford to pay the rest. So I promised my coach, that if he gave me a full scholarship, I'd win the NCAA title by my fourth year."

Bernadino delivered, and Pietucha lived up to his promise.

And now he's promising great things for Sydney.