Former Tiger Malberg closing in on Bejing, seeks medal

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 1, 2008

by Jesse Delerno

LSU Sports Information

Miko Malberg is less than three weeks away from the biggest race of his life, but one would never know based on this former LSU swimmer’s persona.

As the 2008 Olympic Games draw near, Malberg, a freestyle sprinter who will represent his native country of Estonia in Beijing, quietly goes about his business, training nine times a week for the quickest event in his sport – the blistering 50-meter free.

Swimming’s equivalent to the glamorous 100-meter dash in track, the 50m free is an all-out, 22-second tear as sprinters scramble to touch the wall ahead of the competition. On Aug. 14, this notion becomes a reality when Malberg takes his position on the starting blocks next to some of the fastest swimmers in the world.

But even as anxiety sets in, Malberg, who had been training at LSU until just recently, is as cool as they come.

“I’m not really all that nervous,” Malberg explained. “Training has been different because of the Olympic pressure but practicing with my former teammates at LSU has definitely been a major help. I’m actually pretty relaxed and confident.”

The former Tiger standout has plenty of reasons to be oozing with confidence heading into Beijing. After wrapping up months of training in the United States earlier this month, the Estonian traveled to the USA Swimming Sectionals in Austin, Texas for a final tune up before returning to his homeland for training camp.

There, he promptly smoked the competition, taking first place in the 50m free with a time of 22.67 seconds, which tied his country’s national record.

Back in March, Malberg capped a fine collegiate career, culminating in his first NCAA All-America accolade as a member of LSU’s record-setting 200 freestyle relay team at the NCAA Championships, an honor that had eluded him in two previous trips.

At the SEC Championships in February, he captured the third-place medal in the 50-yard free and spearheaded his 200 freestyle relay squad to a top three finish with an opening-leg time of 19.62. The blazing mark registered as the second-fastest time in program history, sandwiched between former Olympian and NCAA champion Mark Andrews and current LSU head coach Adam Schmitt.

Schmitt, who returned to his alma mater to take over head coaching duties in 2004, remembers inheriting Malberg as a young, freshman swimmer from Europe and watching him develop to the point where he is now.

“When I came back to LSU, I inherited Miko,” Schmitt recalled. “It worked out really well, and I think being able to coach him at that time really helped him become the athlete he wanted to be.

“He’s gone through some growth periods, obviously, from his freshman season all the way to his senior year, but I would have to say going to the NCAAs three out of four years, becoming an All-American as a senior, and then, making an Olympic team is just a testament to how hard he’s worked and how this program has developed.”

Following his senior season, Malberg had to transition from college swimming to Olympic preparation. In order to fully focus on his journey to Beijing, he had to make some sacrifices, which included giving up his summer job. On the other hand, he is quick to point out that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“You’ll be working the rest of your life!” Malberg joked.

However, Olympic training is no laughing matter. It can be very rigorous and especially difficult for athletes who are not accustomed to long-course swimming (50-meter pool). Malberg has spent the past four years working primarily in a short-course format (25-yard or 25-meter pool), but Schmitt believes his former swimmer has overcome that obstacle.

“I really feel like he had an eye-opening experience where he saw that he can swim long-course and still go fast,” said Schmitt. “Once an athlete realizes that, I think the door is wide open to achieve whatever he wants to.

“It doesn’t have to feel great. It doesn’t always have to be a perfect swim, but you can still race and go fast. I think he’s figured that out.”  

Heading into Beijing, Malberg doesn’t have much to lose. While he remains a national icon back home, his native land of Estonia is a small country in Eastern Europe known more for track and field and cross country than swimming, so expectations are relatively modest.  

Malberg hasn’t set any particular goals. Just the opportunity to represent his country is a dream come true.

“It’s been my dream all of my life to represent my country,” Malberg expressed. “I just want to enjoy the moment. I’m going to go out there and give it my all.”

But make no mistake. As his college coach suggests, this Estonian is fully capable of making some noise in Beijing.

“Miko’s really got his head on his shoulders, and I think that’s going to help him as he competes at the highest level,” said Schmitt.

“He’s swimming really well right now only a couple of weeks before the Games. I can easily see him getting to the semi-finals and then, seeing what he can do from there.”