Diogo Matos Ribeiro’s swimming career was nearly cut short before it ever had the chance to take off.
A year before the Portuguese teenager took bronze at last month’s European Championships, won three world junior titles earlier this month, and in the process became the world junior record holder in the 50-meter butterfly, a serious motorcycle accident put his future in doubt.
Ribeiro suffered contusions all over his body, dislocated his shoulder, broke his foot, and lost part of his right index finger — though it was later reconstructed with sensation restored.
The injuries left him hospitalized for a week and bedridden for a month, right after winning his first international hardware with a silver medal in the 100 fly at the 2021 Euro Juniors. Fortunately, the close call served as a painful reminder of Ribeiro’s mortality, arming the 6-foot sprint specialist with a renewed sense of focus that fueled his breakout performance this summer.
“After the motorcycle accident that I had last year, I thought I wouldn’t go back into the water again, but I did,” Ribeiro told SwimSwam. “It was a complete overcoming for me in physical terms, but above all in psychological terms. Those who knew me knew that I always had my head in the moon, but after the accident it seemed that I changed my thoughts and I feel that I became more adult and responsible. I think it was a bad thing that came for good and I learned a lot from this accident, especially that we just have one life.”
For the past year, Ribeiro has been training with Brazilian coach Alberto Silva at the Center of High Performance of Jamor with their sights set on the 2024 Paris Olympics. Silva, or Albertinho, as Ribeiro calls him, has implemented a new regimen that has produced record-breaking results in a hurry.
“Albertinho is a very good coach,” Ribeiro said of Silva, who worked with Olympic medalists César Cielo and Thiago Pereira in Brazil. “I didn’t go to the gym, but this year I started doing it. I didn’t do speed training, but this year I started doing it. I used to do longer workouts, longer distances, and this year I started to work more on the details and that was the explosion for my body. It was what my body needed. This year I worked nine times a week in the water, four times in the gym, every day.
“I managed to overcome this great challenge of getting back into the water again thanks to my family that was always by my side, but also thanks to my staff,” Ribeiro said. “Now I feel that these last great results that I’ve achieved were undoubtedly thanks to the accident, but also thanks to this new technical team that I joined just this year. I just have to thank them for the time I had.”
His discipline is paying dividends. Ribeiro has returned even stronger, resetting national records more than 50 times and even taking down a 50 fly mark that had been untouched since 2009. In April, the 17-year-old showed signs of the huge summer to come when he became the first Portuguese swimmer under 49 seconds in the 100 free.
Ribeiro has a knack for going with the flow. The Portuguese Swimming Federation didn’t have a cap for him at Euros last month, but he still wanted to sport his nation’s flag, so he used his teammate Rafaela Azevedo’s cap. When Ribeiro won bronze at Euros with a time of 23.07 in the 50 fly — securing just the third-ever medal for Portugal at the meet — a new tradition was born.
Ribeiro kept Azevedo’s cap as a good luck charm for World Juniors in Lima, where he conquered a busy schedule packed with doubles by bringing home three gold medals and earning swimmer of the meet honors. In the 50 fly, he lowered his lifetime best to 22.96, which rewrote Andrei Minakov’s previous world junior record of 23.05 and made him the first junior in history to clock a sub-23 swim. He’s now brought the Portuguese record down by three-quarters of a second in less than half a year after it sat at 23.72 for 13 years.
In the 50 free, he blazed a 21.92 to earn the victory and move within .02 seconds of the Portuguese record held by Benfica club teammate Miguel Nascimento. Ribeiro’s third world junior title came in the 100 fly, where his 52.03 was just off his national record of 51.61 from Euros. He ended up scratching the 100 free semifinals to focus on the 50 fly final.
“We were expecting four medals, also with the 100 free, but we didn’t expect the three golds,” Ribeiro told Observador. “It was quite good and it’s a very big motivation to work. I hope the future is even brighter and I can, maybe one day, win a medal in the Olympic Games.”
Next up on Ribeiro’s to-do list is hitting Olympic qualifying times and medaling at next year’s World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. First, though, he’s going to take some time to recharge.
“A year ago I was in a bed not moving, now I’m better than ever,” said Ribeiro, who turns 18 next month. “Let’s see if I can keep my mind focused and not do ‘crap’ this vacation. It was very hard, but my family was always by my side, my coach, the whole staff, my friends, and all my colleagues.”