When Costa Rica's first ever Olympic gold medallist stepped off the plane at the San Jose airport last August, one and a half million fans were there to welcome her.
A veritable celebrity in her country, Claudia Poll has also become a household name in aquatic circles, and after her outstanding performances in Gšteborg, she's probably still signing autographs.
To say that the double world champion successfully defended her titles in the 200 and 400 freestyle races is to woefully understate her achievements. To say that she pulverized two world records (1:54.17; 4:00.03) in the process still falls short of the extraordinary spectacle of her two swims in Sweden.
We knew she had a reputation for aiming high, and this year did see her off to a great start with the FINA Swimming World Cup. Displaying her remarkable versatility, she competed in two categories, winning the Distance Freestyle and placing second in the Sprint Freestyle. Her times in the 200 (1:57.02) and 400 (4:05.31) freestyle had her number one in the world before Gšteborg, and as promised, she made the meet the focus of her short course season.
After weeks of training sub-two minute 200s she knew that the results would be spectacular. She spoke fondly of coach Francisco Rivas after the 200. "He's pretty special, and I broke the world record because of him. He told me that he knew I could do it in January. It's been many months of training and I owe it all to him and his planning."
Rivas was misty-eyed over his prodigy's achievements, saying, "I'm very happy, and today I talked to my country on the mobile phone and told them that Claudia was swimming a world record. And now in my country, there is a very big party."
Born in Nicaragua of German parents, Poll moved to Costa Rica when she was 6 years old. She started swimming lessons with the local team coached by Rivas, and then just stayed on. "I've always been with Francisco," she says. "It was just fun in the beginning. It wasn't until 1987 that I started to take swimming seriously."
At 24, Poll's imposing stature (1.91 m tall) is all the more noticeable for her professional edge when she arrives on the pool deck. "I'm very disciplined and I believe it's the only way to go. I come here to compete, and I'm very meticulous. I have fun with what I do but I do it with discipline," she says. The cool exterior vanished, however, the moment she glimpsed her times on the clock in the Scandinavium, and her unbridled joy had a contagious latin charm, no doubt typical of the little country that she has fervently embraced as her own.
Poll's seriousness in training is no joke, however, as the third year Business Administration student rises at 3 a.m. to train in 15ˇC water. "The weather is warm in Costa Rica but our pool is cold and it's extremely windy," she explains. "But Francisco tells us the cold is in your mind. Sometimes we're all blue when we swim...we swim about 10 to 11 km a day because it's too cold for more. We also have a rainy season so I'm used to the wind and rain!"
Despite training in a small country, out of the international eye, Poll admits she loves the limelight of world-class competition. "I like everything (about competing)," she says. "The minutes before when you're a little bit nervous and trying to control everything, and then the start, and everything goes away...I love that sensation."
Poll's enthusiasm for her sport is evident when she talks about possibly changing strokes in the near future, "to have new goals. It's going to be pretty hard to break a 1:54.17!" A frequent and formidable racer, her next appearance in competition will be in Canet at the end of May. Look out everyone, because Poll is on a roll.