SHANGHAI -- What 15-year-old Daniel Langinbelik accomplished here Wednesday is, in its way, every bit as great as what Ryan Lochte or Michael Phelps or any other champion did, or will do, at the 2011 swimming world championships. Maybe, to be honest, more.
They ran 14 heats Wednesday morning of men's 100-meter freestyle. Daniel was entered in the very first of those 14. He got up on the blocks. The whistle blew. He didn't false start. He not only finished the two laps in the Olympic-sized pool -- he shaved some seven seconds off his previous best time, touching in 1:12.52, a fantastic display of courage and tenacity.
Afterward, Daniel couldn't believe a journalist wanted to talk to him. To begin, he said, he's shy. Moreover, he said, "I'm only in the ninth grade." Asked about the race, he did allow, "I'm happy."
Then, with the help of his coach, who arrived on the scene, he opened up. True, Daniel is only in the ninth grade. Beyond which, he turned 15 not even two weeks ago -- and until this week, he had never seen an escalator, or an elevator, or stayed in a hotel, or been on an airplane. Well, he might have seen them on television or in the movies but never himself experienced them in the Marshall Islands, which are way out there in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, where he lives.
There's always a world of difference at every championships between the stars, who justifiably get the headlines, and the swimmers who populate the early-morning heat sheets. Nowhere is that difference more pronounced than the 100-meter free, because freestyle is the easiest stroke to teach, no matter where in the world you might be.
Daniel's time, 1:12.52, ended up being the 103rd best time of the 105 guys who finished the race, a full 39.11 seconds behind the day's top qualifier, William Meynard of France, who touched in 48.14.
In this instance, it only proves the point.
FINA, swimming's world governing body, understandably has an interest in promoting the sport anywhere and everywhere. So it underwrites a program to bring such swimmers to championship and other meets. This does two things. One, athletes get to compete against their peers, which should make them all better. Two, it promotes what's called "universality," a term of Olympic jargon that means, more or less, we're all in this together.
The Marshall Islands are but dots on the map of the Pacific. The islands' Olympic committee wasn't even created until 2001; the International Olympic Committee took another five years to then formally recognize it. The Marshall Islands swim team here numbers four -- three swimmers and a coach, Amy LaCost, 43, a merchant ship captain, who swam at Kankakee (Ill.) High School and is a Texas A&M grad.
The other two swimmers on the team -- Giordan Harris, 18, and Ann-Marie Hepler, 15 -- are, in comparison to Daniel, grizzled veterans. Giordan and Ann-Marie, who compete in both butterfly and freestyle events, have been swimming since each was 3 years old; both, for instance, swam at the short-course world championships in Dubai last December.
Daniel just started swimming a couple years ago, and then because some friends were at the pool.
There is a pool on Ebeye Island, with a population of about 15,000 people, where Daniel lives with his two brothers, a sister and his parents. He's the youngest of the family.
The pool is hardly the Olympic-sized 50 meters. It's 25 yards. Also, it's a salt-water pool. That's because the salt water comes from the ocean.
Once a week, they pump the water in from the sea. "So getting used to swimming in meters [as opposed to yards] and in fresh water, where you sink, is important to us," said LaCost, the coach.
It took a full two and a half days for LaCost and her crew to get to Shanghai from the islands, making airplane connections through Guam and then Japan. They're staying here at a Ramada, nothing particularly fancy. FINA is helping to underwrite the cost of the trip, about $14,000 in all.
They've seen some of the sights in Shanghai. To say it's a little different here than Ebeye would be the gentlest of understatements.
On Tuesday night, at the pool, Daniel watched Phelps and Lochte go head to head in the 200 free. He saw two French racers, Camille Lacourt and Jeremy Stravius, tie for the title in the 100 backstroke. He was thrilled by the action.
"He's going to go home and tell 10 to 20 kids what he has seen and everything he has experienced," LaCost said, beaming. "It's one thing when you're in the middle of practice and you're wondering what the pay-off for all that hard work is. Now he can see it, and now he can tell these other kids, and then maybe we can get them to come out and do this, too.
"That's what the investment is all about.," she said. "That's what all of this is all about.
"I couldn't be more proud of him. Just couldn't be more proud."