Most kids in Poland grow up with dreams to play soccer or basketball.
Not Marcin Cieslak.
The UF swimmer, 21, grew up an athlete with many passions as a child in Warsaw, Poland. He said he spent about six hours a day outside, playing soccer, biking, and swimming at a local pool.
A coach one day stopped by the pool and asked Cieslak if he wanted to join a real swim practice.
“Yeah, sure,” he replied.
And that’s how he got into swimming.
In Europe, Cieslak said, it’s difficult to commit to school and compete athletically. So at age 15 he left home to attend an athletics-centered school in Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city, five hours away from his home.
“At first it was just for fun, I was just enjoying going to practice and just having fun,” he said. “And then I started competing at some bigger meets and I thought, ‘Yeah, this might be the sport I’m going to be doing for a long time.'”
While other Polish children idolized Michael Jordan on TV, Cieslak watched in awe as Michael Phelps shattered records at the 2008 Olympics. That’s when Cieslak decided moving across the globe was the next natural step in his swimming career.
He began shopping around American universities, including Michigan and California, looking for a school with a good educational reputation in addition to a strong swimming program. He and his dad blasted out emails to collegiate coaches to garner attention.
“(In Europe,) I could either go to school and get a good degree and just stop swimming, or become a professional swimmer and don’t do any school because I don’t have any time,” he said.
Florida stood out. Among all the coaches he was in contact with, Cieslak said UF Associate Head Coach for Men’s Swimming, Anthony Nesty, was his favorite. The program matched his skillset, too. He also said he likes the weather and Florida’s palm trees.
“Actually I got here in January so it was really nice,” Cieslak said. “I left Poland and it was snowing and very cold. It was very nice in the heat and I was like, ‘Wow.’ When summer started, I realized it might be a little too warm, so thank God somebody invented air conditioning.”
Last season, Cieslak was on the UF squad that claimed the NCAA title in the 800-meter freestyle relay and set a school record with a time of 6:13.27. After the race, he said the team hugged and screamed Gator chants.
“That was a big moment. That was probably the most fun race I’ve ever had,” he said. “That was my first national championship, and the only one so far, so I’ve enjoyed that moment a lot.”
He has also claimed the SEC title in the 200-meter fly two seasons in a row, and won the 100-meter fly at SEC’s last year.
In 2012, though, Cieslak took to the international stage with other Gators like Ryan Lochte and Elizabeth Beisel at the London Olympics. He placed 19th overall both in the 200 meter individual medley and 200 meter butterfly for Poland.
“I didn’t do as well as I wanted to, but going to the Olympics is just a huge thing for every athlete,” he said. “It’s just like a huge family of athletes, everyone lives in the same village, everyone’s an athlete. It’s hard to describe but it’s a great feeling. Everyone’s so close. Like you don’t know people but you feel and you share the passion with them.”
Although SEC competition and the NCAA championships are primary priorities, Cieslak is also looking forward to trying to medal at the Rio de Janeiro games in 2016.