When Sidni Hoxha arrived at Old Dominion, he'd already competed in one Olympics - the 2008 Beijing Games - and owned a handful of Albanian swimming records.
"Now, I would slap that guy in the face," he said this week. "I'd say, 'You don't know anything.' "
The ODU senior sprinter will swim in his final home meet at 1?p.m. Saturday. Since his arrival in 2010, he's added a second Olympics (2012 in London) and set a few more Albanian records. He's also broken three individual marks at ODU. Swimming coach Carol Withus says he gets off the starting block better than just about anyone she's seen.
But fast starts, Hoxha has learned, are all relative. That slap he imagined giving his younger self serves as a reminder. So does the tattooed "0.03" between his left bicep and elbow: the time by which he missed the cut for advancing out of the preliminary rounds at last year's NCAA meet. And the tattoo on his right forearm that says in Albanian, "There is no shortcut from the earth to the stars."
This season, Hoxha has the fifth-best 50-yard freestyle time in the NCAA (19.44) and the No. 14 time in the 100 free (43.15). His goal is to reach the NCAA finals in March. Doing so would be a testament to how he's overcome the trappings of fast starts.
Hoxha grew up in Tirana, the capital of Albania. His grandfather played on the national soccer team, and his father, Shpetim, was once the No. 3 tennis player in the nation of 3 million people located on the Adriatic Sea north of Greece.
Hoxha didn't begin seriously training in the pool until he was 14. The Hoxhas had to drive more than an hour so Sidni could practice in an one of the country's few pools - this one undersized and outdoors.
That's when Shpetim Hoxha, a civil engineer, decided to assume responsibility for his son's swimming career. He built the nation's first indoor, Olympic-sized pool, picked up a copy of "The Swim Coaching Bible" and started training Sidni.
Two years later, Sidni Hoxha headed to Beijing. He was 16.
"I was jumping really big steps right away," he said.
"When people said in 2008, 'That's something really good,' I was like, 'I don't know,' " Hoxha recalled. "I was too young for this huge thing."
Albania sent only 11 athletes to both 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics and has never won a medal in any sport. The step to American collegiate swimming would prove to be just as big.
Hoxha ended up at ODU in 2010 through a recruiting service. While his father's careful manual reading had helped Hoxha develop a technically sound stroke, he wasn't prepared for the grueling American training regimen.
"He was doing about a tenth of the work that we put in here," Withus said.
During one of his first practices, his shoulder started bothering him. So he got out of the pool and called it a day. Hoxha wasn't arrogant, just oblivious.
The next afternoon, an assistant coach told him, "You have to apologize to Carol. What you did yesterday - we can't tolerate that."
"I didn't realize it was that big of deal," Hoxha said. "But you don't show up and say, 'I'm gonna swim a 200,' and then go home."
Hoxha knew many European athletes who had gone to American universities but returned home within a year or two. Some people back in Albania expected him to do the same.
But his ODU teammates found Hoxha quickly fit right in.
"He's a competitor unlike any I've really ever met," said Ryan Telep, also a senior. "We'll be playing this board game he likes, Catan, and he's all about it. He gets really intense - not in an obnoxious way, but you can tell he really wants to win."
Despite his learning curve in practice, Hoxha was named CAA co-Rookie of the Year. Last season, the civil engineering major broke the school freestyle records at 50, 100 and 200 yards and was named CAA Swimmer of the Year.
More remains for him to accomplish. At the NCAA prelims last spring, Hoxha's start in his 50 free heat was "the best by far," according to Withus. Yet, he finished in 19.67, and the semifinals qualifying time was 19.64. He ended up the second alternate.
"It happens in the 50 a lot, but still - how!?" said Hoxha, who hopes to add a third Olympic Games in two years in Brazil.. "
I got the tattoo because I want to remember that if you don't work today, you might fall that short tomorrow, and it's going to hurt."
Back in 2010, Withus knew she was getting a pretty good swimmer. But one that would go up on the wall of records? One that, by his senior year, would compete with the sprinters in this country?
"We know he had the potential, but his events are the most competitive. Everybody wants to do the sprints," she said. "So I'm very impressed by how far he's come."
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