Every time Joseph Condorelli watches his son, Canadian national teamer and World Championship finalist Santo Condorelli, race, he’s staring straight at his son’s middle finger, and he flips him one right back.
It draws stares from other members of the crowd, questioning glances from others, and even angers the odd coach here or there, but to Joseph and Santo, it’s a signal of confidence and strength.
Joseph grew up in New York City and describes himself as “a little rough around the edges.” Following the split from Santo’s mother when Santo was five, Joseph began to coach him in a backyard pool he built with his own two hands.
Joseph said that he was raised around, “a bunch of guys,” and that made him a, “pretty tough little kid.”
Santo’s toughness mixed with his natural talent and passion for the pool all summed up to equal one thing: speed. Santo quickly began to win races against his competitors and slowly but surely reached higher and higher levels of competition. The only issue was that unlike the others at his level, Santo lacked size which made getting up on the blocks against bigger competitors a nerve-racking experience for the young swimmer.
“Santo was a small wiry kid when he was younger. He didn’t really grow until after high school,” Joseph said, “We used to call him the leprechaun, he was so funny with that high squeaky voice!”
Just like it was yesterday, Santo recalls the feeling of getting up on the blocks next to these bigger swimmers. “That was my biggest set back in swimming,” Santo said. “Being so small I’d always get intimidated…every time I was going to race I’d just get scared ****less.”
With the intimidation factor affecting his performances, Joseph knew that he had to find a way to release the tension in Santo’s mind and help him to relax.
“I told him ‘enough is enough’,” said Joseph. “When you get on the blocks, just put everything out of your mind and swim like there’s nobody near you. He said to me ‘how do you do that?’ and I said ‘well, you say **** it’. So he looked at me in the crowd, and we both gave each other the finger, and he started winning race after race and we never looked back.”
It was the first time that Joseph had ever tried a method like that as a coach, but it seemed to work as Santo recalls feeling more relaxed and being able to better concentrate on his races without the worry of the guys beside him.
“The main thing was don’t worry about who I’m racing,” said Santo. “Doesn’t matter about the size, doesn’t matter how good they are, how good you are, because behind the blocks he told me ‘you know what? Just **** ’em, doesn’t matter who they are, doesn’t make a difference’.”
After that first time, it stuck, and Santo continued to give his dad the finger every time he stepped on the blocks. He would stick it out proudly, calm his nerves, and he began to win big races.
“My dad was like you know what? Give me the finger before every race, just to worry about us, what we put in, we can conquer anything”
Santo continued to climb the ranks of his age group in the United States and began to train with the Bolles School Sharks under head coach Sergio Lopez Miro when he entered high school. Regardless of how good he got, or who he was facing, the motto stayed the same. Even when Santo began to qualify for higher caliber meets, the tradition continued and calmed Santo behind the blocks.
His father would say, “these guys are bigger than you but you know how to swim better, so just say **** it!”
In 2012 when he was 17-years-old, Santo qualified for the finals of the 100m freestyle at the Speedo Junior National Championships as the top seed overall. After the walk out, when he was being introduced, the camera was on him and he gave his dad the finger. To him it didn’t seem like anything, but to those watching it appeared as though Santo purposely gave the middle finger straight to the camera.
Santo ended up winning the race in 50.92, but had no idea that there would be some dramatic reactions following the signal he gave to his father prior to the win.
“I was unaware about TV broadcasting and all that, and my father was on the sidelines,” Santo recalled. “We gave each other the finger and the camera happened to be pointing right at me at the time so it looked like I was giving the bird to national television and I got…. a stern talking to from one of my coaches. Another coach was super offended, thought I was targeting it towards their swimmer directly.”
Joseph recalled the incident with a laugh, “He had to send an apology letter, and it got really carried away. I told him, some people get offended and you just need to be polite, especially to your elders, and he was perfect about it, he sent an apology letter. Sergio gave me a phone call…blah, blah, blah… and I said ‘hey Sergio, works for him, that’s all that counts, he’s the one behind the blocks, nobody else’.”
Following that race Santo didn’t come anywhere close to giving up his tradition, but has since modified it slightly. If his dad is there, he and his dad will exchange the signal before the race. While behind the blocks, Santo now puts the middle finger on his forehead; same symbol, draws less attention.
Last summer Santo swam at the Canadian Team Trials in Toronto in order to try and make his first senior national team. He qualified for both the Pan American Games team and the World Championship team, which meant that he would be going to the two biggest competitions of his career thus far.
Being at such high level international meets meant that he would also be facing off against the toughest competitors of his career, which meant that once again Santo would be the little kid up against the big guys if he wanted a chance at making his mark on international competition.
At Pan Ams and Worlds, just like he did when he was younger, he gave the middle finger (although this time on his forehead), cleared his mind and swam.
Santo earned four medals at the Pan Am Games in Toronto before taking a bronze and a fourth place finish in the 100m freestyle at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia. Santo ended the season tied for third in the world in the 100m freestyle.
“I was always taught to relax behind the blocks,” said Santo. “Not to get too tense or excited, it’s just a constant reminder for me to reflect on what I’ve done in the past, how I’ve been training, how I’ve been putting in the work. Yeah these guys might be doing the same but I know I’m better than everybody else I’m about to race.”
His times this summer surely put him among the best sprinters in the world in the 100m freestyle, and by no means is he the little kid anymore. Now, Santo is one of the big kids on the block, and has become what he was afraid of all those years ago.
This season, he’s currently ranked third in the world the 100m freestyle with a 48.05 performance that he swam at the 2015 US Winter Nationals. That puts him in great contention to medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio this summer assuming he qualifies for the Canadian team.
With Santo on the rise to becoming one of the greatest sprinters in the world, his father is fully aware of his potential this summer. Having already bought his tickets to watch Santo compete in Rio, he’s going to be sitting in the stands waiting for Santo’s signal as he walks out onto the pool deck a short 27 weeks from now.
“I said ‘you got to be careful man, if you win the gold medal in Rio, I don’t know if we should do it there! Too many people looking!’”