World Junior Record holder Matt Sates recently made the trip from South Africa to Athens, Georgia to begin training and racing for the University of Georgia Bulldogs.
He is the most recent man to relocate to the United States to train as he prepares for his next Olympic bid, which will be at Paris 2024.
There is a storied history of swimmers going from their home country to the USA to train in the lead-up to a Games, but in the last decade, only a small few of those who’ve done so have made it onto an individual Olympic podium.
Ous Mellouli is one of the two best examples for Sates. He is the only example who moved to the U.S. as he began college and was still training there when he won his Olympic medal.
He raced for the USC Trojans between 2002 and 2006, placing him in the USA for the majority of his lead-up to winning 1500 freestyle gold at the 2008 Olympics. Mellouli won several NCAA titles during his time at USC and went on to win another pair of medals at London 2012, taking bronze in the 1500 freestyle and a gold in the 10 km marathon.
The other is sprint icon and current world record holder Cesar Cielo of Brazil, who moved to the USA to train at and attend Auburn University in 2005. He won the NCAA title in both the 50 and 100 freestyles in 2007 and 2008, meaning that for the 3 years leading up to Beijing 2008 he trained in the USA. In 2008 Cielo won Olympic gold in the 50 freestyle and bronze in the 100 free and returned 4 years later to take bronze in 2012 in the 50 freestyle.
Another man who won medals at NCAA Championships and the Olympics is Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling. Schooling won a pair of NCAA titles for two years in a row when he earned gold in the 100 and 200 butterflies in both 2015 and 2016 for Texas. Months after his 2016 victory he delivered one of the most talked-about swims of the year when he took Olympic gold in the 100 butterfly.
Schooling posted a 50.39 Olympic and Asian record to defeated the likes of Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos, and Laszlo Cseh who all shared the silver medal with a 51.14. Like Cielo, Schooling was training in the USA for the lead-up to his Olympic medal-winning swim, though unlike Cielo, Schooling moved to the U.S. well before his college career, attending high school at The Bolles School in Florida.
Another example of an American-trained man who found Olympic success is another Brazilian sprinter, Bruno Fratus. Fratus never swam in the NCAA, but he has trained in the USA for much of his elite career (currently in Florida). In 2013, a year after finishing 4th in the 50 freestyle at the London Olympics, Fratus joined the pro group at Auburn and trained there for 4 years. He wound up placing 6th in the 50 freestyle at Rio 2016 but found success at the 2017 World Championships when he took silver in the event.
After 2017, Fratus moved to Coral Springs, Florida, where he trained in the years before competing at his 3rd straight Olympic Games. At Tokyo 2020, Fratus got the job done and landed on an Olympic podium alongside Caeleb Dressel and Florent Manaudou in the 50 freestyle.
Fratus wasn’t the only American-trained swimmer to medal at the Tokyo Games as Italy’s Federico Burdisso pulled off the feat when he won bronze in the 200 butterfly and 4×100 freestyle. The slight asterisks on Burdisso’s case are that after his freshman year at Northwestern in 2019-2020, he went back to Italy to train amid the COVID-19 pandemic, placing him in his home country for the year leading up to Tokyo; and that he moved to the United States in 2017, a few years before start of his college career.
Nonetheless, Burdisso is back at Northwestern now and is expected to continue training there until Paris 2024 where he will make another bid for the Olympic podium.
Burdisso isn’t the only current international man training in the USA who has prospects of medaling in Paris. The aforementioned Matt Sates is a proven entity in short course meters as the world junior record-holder in the 200 and 400 freestyle and the 200 IM and will have a shot at making an immediate impact at Georgia this year. He arrived in the country on January 20, just one month out from SEC Championships.
Sates swam at the Tokyo 2020 Games and placed 32nd overall in the 100 butterfly and 14th in the 200 IM. It will be interesting to see how Sates’ training in Georgia impacts his chances, and what events he decides to focus on in the long course pool moving forward. We might get our first look later this year if he races for South Africa at the 2022 World Championships in May.
If Sates goes on to win an Olympic medal after his move to the USA, he won’t only be following in the footsteps of Cielo, Schooling, and Fratus, he’ll be next in a long line of Georgia Bulldogs to collect hardware on the Olympic stage. In the last few years, several members of the Georgia NCAA team and pro group have landed on Olympic podiums including Chase Kalisz, Jay Litherland, Gunnar Bentz, Natalie Hinds, Olivia Smoliga, Melanie Margalis, Allison Schmitt, and Hali Flickinger.
In addition to Sates, Russian Olympian Andrei Minakov and France’s Leon Marchand have also made the decision to train in the USA pre-Paris. Minakov joined the Stanford men for the 2021 – 2022 season, while Marchand is racing for Arizona State.
Minakov was in contention for several medals at the Tokyo Games, but ultimately fell short when he placed 4th in the 100 fly, 4th in the 4×100 medley relay, 7th in the 4×100 freestyle relay, and 10th in the 100 free. Marchand also had a solid Olympic debut when he placed 6th overall in the 400 IM, 14th in the 200 fly, and 18th in the 200 IM.
While Sates, Minakov, and Marchand all found success before their moves to the USA, it will be interesting to see how these new training bases impact their chances at landing on a Parisian podium.
Female Athletes See Similar Results
Female international athletes have recently had more success with these moves, but overall, most international Olympic medalists are still trained in their home countries. From Tokyo 2002, that includes Siobhan Haughey of Hong Kong (silvers in the 100 and 200 free) and Maggie MacNeil of Canada (gold in the 100 fly).
Four years earlier this list included only Katinka Hosszu, though the US was no longer her primary training base by the time she won Olympic medals, and Yulia Efimova, who was training at USC with Dave Salo.
In 2012, we weren’t able to identify any individual female Olympic medalists representing foreign countries who were training in the U.S. – at least not any who arrived through the collegiate system (though actual training situations can become murkier the further back we go).