Before he started collecting earrings to go with his national swimming titles, before he came within a breath of the 100-meter breaststroke world record, before he waved the little American flag given to each swimmer at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis in March, Nelson Diebel sat with his mother in the admissions office of the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., and stared terror—all 240 pounds of it—right in the face.
It was December 1986, and things had been going badly for the 16-year-old Diebel. His parents had divorced two years earlier, and he was still angry about it. Bright but hyperactive, he had marginal grades and the attention span of a five-year-old. Worse, he had a hair-trigger temper and a taste for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and petty theft. He had been kicked out of one East Coast prep school for beating up a kid, and the Peddie School was considering him only because of a lie on his application. Nelson Diebel was on an expressway to hell, and this was the last exit.
At Peddie all students are required to participate in some extracurricular activity. Did Diebel have a special skill that might make up for his bad grades and touchy temperament, the school wanted to know. Diebel wrote "swimming" on his application, recalling a period several years earlier when his mother, Marge, desperate to find something that would tire him out and make him sleep at night, had signed him up for a swim team. Though he frequently skipped swim practice, he made it often enough to clock a promising 1:08 in the 100-yard breaststroke when he was 12. Nevertheless, says Diebel, calling himself a swimmer at 16 was "probably one of the largest lies I have ever told in my life."
When the Peddie swim coach was brought in from practice to make the final call on his admission, Diebel's palms started to sweat. Chris Martin, 26, a 6'2" former Yale swimmer, had already had a long day, so he got right to the point. "The first thing I want you to know is that I am a tyrant!" he shouted at Diebel. "The second thing is, if there's going to be any fighting, it's going to be with me!" After a 10-minute harangue detailing the horrors that Diebel would face as a member of the Peddie swim team, Martin walked out. Diebel and his mother stared at each other. " Chris Martin was the answer to my prayers," says Marge. Nelson wasn't so sure.
When he arrived at Peddie two days later, there commenced a monumental clash of wills between swimmer and coach. "At the time," Diebel says, "I thought the only way I could be the person I wanted to be was to break every rule and to let no one control me or have any power over me. Then, all of a sudden, I run into Chris, who had a bigger ego and was a bigger controlmonger. There was a huge clash. Obviously, he won. Lucky for me."
The way Diebel figures it, if it hadn't been for Martin, he would be in jail—or dead—today. He certainly wouldn't be tossing back a breakfast of chocolate-chip pancakes, a vanilla shake and a Coke at a pancake house near the campus of Princeton University, from which he has taken a year's leave to train for the Olympics at the nearby Peddie Aquatic Club, which Martin also coaches. "I still think some rules need to be broken," says Diebel, playing with one of the six silver rings on his fingers. "But I'm no longer societally unacceptable. You can take me out to breakfast without me starting a brawl or something."
Indeed, a bike chain and brass knuckles seem to be the only accessories missing from his wardrobe, which tends toward mid-century hoodlum. He is particularly fond of a slightly tatty black leather jacket, which he often wears as a warmup. At a recent Olympic team gathering in Colorado Springs, Diebel wore all black, all weekend. "He even wore black cutoffs," says Olympic breaststroker Roque Santos. "Nobody wears black cutoffs."
But Diebel isn't the strong, silent type. He is a tireless talker from way back. "Nelson came out of the womb talking," says Marge, "and he hasn't stopped yet."
Mike Barrowman, the current world-record holder in the 200-meter breaststroke and a member of the 1992 Olympic team, loves Diebel's chattiness, partly because it is so rare among elite athletes. "He has a very whimsical attitude," says Barrowman. "He'll talk to you about any subject out of the blue."
When Diebel first showed up at swim practice at Peddie in 1986, he was a two-pack-a-day smoker who could go only a few laps before he would clutch the side of the pool and cough for several minutes. Under Martin's grueling four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week workouts, Diebel's swimming flourished; his hyperactivity mellowed; and the drinking, the smoking and the drug use abated.