Give the Diebel His Due

updated 08/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I WAS HAPPY, SAD, FREAKING OUT," says Nelson Diebel, 21, describing his reaction to winning America's first gold medal of the 1992 Summer Olympics last week in the 100-meter breaststroke. "I wasn't even expected to make the team."

There was a time, in fact, when Diebel, of Western Springs, Ill., a Chicago suburb, wasn't expected to do anything with his life. "Loser, dirtbag, borderline suicidal" is the way Nelson has too harshly described the kid he used to be. The truth is, Diebel, a hyperactive child, came unglued in the mid-'80s when his stockbroker mother and history professor father split up. He raised the ante of his already inspired mischief by smashing windshields, breaking into the school gym, lying and cheating. In addition, he admits. "I had some problems with alcohol and drugs."

Swimming saved him—or, more accurately, a 6'2", 240-lb. force of nature named Chris Martin did. Martin presided over the swimming team at the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., where Nelson washed up after being thrown out of another prep school for beating up a fellow student. Nelson lied on his Peddie application, saying he was an experienced swimmer, and now he was a fresh fish in Martin's pool. Marking Diebel for the devil he was, Martin told him at the outset, "The first thing I want you to know is I am a tyrant!"

Thanks to Martin's grueling, four-hour-a-day workout schedule, Diebel not only became a champion swimmer, but a better, more content human being. And don't think Diebel, now a sophomore at Princeton, doesn't know it. "Chris was the one who sat there with an iron fist and made me realize what a waste I was," he says. "I owe this medal to him."

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