Francisco Sanchez came into his own at the 1995 Short Course Worlds in Rio de Janeiro. At 19, he stole the 50 freestyle (21.80) victory from Brazilian favourites Fernando Scherer and Gustavo Borges, and added a bronze medal in the 100 freestyle (48.46).
That made him "pretty much of a star" in his native Venezuela, and now people recognize him wherever he goes.
This time around, the 20-year-old sprinter came to Gteborg as one of the big guys with a title to defend. And while his just over 6-foot stature is less noticeable on deck than that of tall man Borges or the flamboyant Scherer, when he flew from the block in the heats of the men's 100 freestyle, it was clear he had every intention of meeting the challenge.
Sanchez led his heat by almost a body length and posted the fastest time of 47.85. That night at finals, he told himself he needed a repeat performance. Getting the jump on all of his competitors, there was never a doubt: victory was his in 47.86 seconds.
After the race Sanchez was quietly jubilant, saying, "I couldn't believe what I did this morning, that I could go that fast. When I realized I could go that fast, I just went for the gold, and got it. Thank God!"
"It feels pretty terrific to beat Olympic medallist Gustavo Borges," he added.
Sanchez explained his remarkable starts."I've been working on my starts since about 1995 and it's really paying off. I've also worked on my turns. Two weeks ago I had NCAAs and it didn't go so well (he was fourth in the 50 freestyle), so I didn't know what to expect here. But it's going great."
As for the 50 freestyle on the last night, he grinned wickedly, "I think I'm ready!"
He certainly was; with his fast twitch fibres tuned, Sanchez came back on Britain's Mark Foster to take the 50 in 21.80, tying his own championship record and securing his second gold. "I did it again," he said, delighted "I had a bad finish this morning so I knew I could go faster."
When asked after the 100 about the absence of top competitors like Alexander Popov, Sanchez rationalized, "There are always going to be some people who say that it matters, that the best aren't here, but I don't believe that. Borges is here. Besides (Popov), Borges and Gary Hall, who else is there? That was pretty close to an Olympic final."After two years in the United States, Sanchez has picked up the classic American speak. "I wanted to go to the U.S. since I was 15 years old," he explains. When his friend Felipe Delgado of Ecuador told him about Arizona State University, he managed to get a sponsorship from a Venezuelan Sport Instititute to take English classes and start trainining in Tempe (Arizona). "We don't have many meets in Venezuela, so I went to the U.S. to study and to be able to race often."
Under the tutelage of coach Ernie Maglischo, Sanchez trains short course yards, logging up to 70,000 to 80,000 yards a week.
"The first year was pretty hard. I missed my family a lot," he says. Now in second year Industrial Management, Sanchez has relaxed and adapted to the "crazy" routine of American college life. "I never went out in the beginning," he laughs, "but now I go out on Friday nights, and I like to party."
"I think people (in Venezuela) expected a lot from me here, but more from the 50!" With two world titles to his credit, the next homecoming is bound to be a fiesta.
Sanchez gets back to his hometown of Valencia about twice a year and will head back this month (May) to see his parents, his brother Jos, 19, and little sister Mariana. "She just turned 15 in March, so my first gold medal is for her," he smiles proudly. No doubt, it is a birthday present Mariana will cherish.