Juan Valdivieso walks into the Carderock Springs Swim and Tennis Club just after the sun has risen on a crisp, chilly summer morning. He changes out of his clothing into his small black swimsuit, wearing his white swim cap with “Valdivieso” printed on it in thick blue letters.
The defined muscles in his broad back ripple as he approaches the lap lane. A 50-ish woman who is swimming quickly moves out of the way as she sees him coming toward the lap lane with two of his friends, both swimmers, with the same broad shoulders and slender legs. He streamlines off the wall, and his toned body cuts through the water, like a fish in the sea.
Twenty-three-year old Bethesda resident Juan Pablo Valdivieso swam in the Summer Olympics in the 200-meter butterfly on Aug. 16 and will swim the 100-meter butterfly on Aug. 19 on behalf of Peru. This summer he is hoping to make the semifinal meet with his best time ever.
Valdivieso graduated from the Landon School in 1999 and deferred his acceptance to Princeton University for one year so that he could train for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. This year, he had to train for the 2004 Games as well as finish his senior year at Princeton.
He said that balancing time between his swim training and his classes was difficult, especially at the end of the school year, when his classmates were celebrating graduation. “Towards the end of the year, I had to make sure I kept my goals in mind.” And he did.
The 2 1/2-hour swimming workout sessions, nine or 10 times every week, took up most of his time in the weeks preceding the games. Each workout, he swims 7,000-9,000 meters and he also has three 1-hour lifting sessions every week.
Valdivieso trains vigorously year round so that he can be in top physical and mental condition at the games. “This could be my last swim; I’ve done everything I can to prepare for it. I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do,” he said.
COMPETING ON this high level has impacted his life positively. “Swimming in the Olympics has given me an attitude of always pushing myself to do my best, not only in swimming but in all areas of life.”
Although he loves having the opportunity to compete in the Olympics, he said that the training can be frustrating. “Sometimes you can do everything right — eat, train, go to bed on time — and still not perform well.” The satisfaction , he said, comes from knowing that he has tried his best.
Valdivieso said that competing in the Olympics had always been a childhood goal, but it didn’t actually seem realistic until his late teens.
He started swimming for the Carderock Swim Team when he was 5. At age 7, he began to train year-round with the Curl-Burke Swim Club. When he was 14, he tried out at the South American Junior Championship, and by the time he was 17, he qualified for the U.S. Senior nationals. He qualified for the Olympics at the Pan American Games in August 1999 and at the South American Championships in April 2001. At the Pan American Games in 2003 in the Dominican Republic, he qualified for the 2004 Olympics by placing seventh.
He competed in his first Olympics when he was 19 and placed 36th in the men’s 200-meter butterfly. “I didn’t do as well as I had hoped,” he said. “It was disappointing because I had trained for a whole year. But I didn’t throw in the towel, and I decided to keep going.” When Valdivieso becomes discouraged, he reassures himself that improvement could be ahead.
Ethan Basset, who placed seventh at the U.S. Olympic trials and who has trained with Valdivieso since he was 8, admires Valdivieso’s ability to juggle his many activities at once. He was able to maintain a 4.0 GPA in high school, and he did very well at Princeton while spending many long hours training each week. “He has focus and a drive to do the best of his ability. He won’t take on something unless he knows that he can do it very well,” Bassett said.
Valdivieso’s current coach, Rick Curl, the head coach of the Peruvian Olympic Swim Team, instructs as well as motivates him. Valdivieso says, “What’s great about him is that he’s very [knowledgeable] about swimming, but he also cares about the swimmers personally — about their family and lives.” Valdivieso said that Curl understands the difficult balance between swimming and spending time with family and friends. He always reminds the swimmers of their potential. “He says that if you work hard and stay at it long enough, you can achieve anything. He never sets any limits for his swimmers.”
ALTHOUGH THE OLYMPIAN was born at Georgetown University Hospital, his parents were born in Peru, and he has a Peruvian citizenship. “I continue to represent Peru because of my strong ties to the country. I speak Spanish at home with my family,” he said. Also, his grandfather influenced his decision to represent Peru because he played soccer in the 1936 Olympics for Peru.
Valdivieso tries to keep a balanced diet by eating foods from all food groups. Because he works out so often, he has a hard time keeping his body weight up. He loses weight pretty easily, so he tries to eat as much as he can.
He had the chance to work with U.S. Olympian Tom Dolan in 1996 and 2000. Valdivieso said that Dolan is his role model and inspiration. “To see him [Dolan] overcome adversity (his asthma) was inspiring,” he said. “I admire his work ethic.” Dolan is a two-time gold medalist and world record holder in the 400 IM.
Former teammate on the Carderock Swim Team Jessie Sobrino said that Valdivieso went out of his way to work with the younger swim team members. “He taught me how to swim butterfly,” Sobrino said. “Obviously he blew everyone out of the water with his skills, but he was also always the person leading everyone in cheers and getting everyone lined up for halftime.” She said that both his talent and attitude greatly contributed to the team.
Competing in the Olympics has allowed Valdivieso to meet people and make friends from all over the world. “I love having the experience of competing with the very best people in the world,” he said. In the last few years Valdivieso has competed in Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, Venezuela, Spain, Japan and Australia.
Valdivieso pushes himself physically when training and competing. “Swimming is an individual sport. If the drive and enjoyment don’t come from within, very few people can push you,” he said.
He suggested that aspiring athletes “follow their dreams, not set any limits, and shoot for the moon.”