Jan. 28, 2013
First off, Albania isn't big on competitive swimming. Although it's located on the Adriatic Sea, about 50 miles across that body of water from the heel of Italy's boot, people there swim for fun, not for time.
So from the start, Sidni Hoxha was at a disadvantage.
"Until I was about 12, the longest pool I ever trained in was 17 meters," he said. "It was kind of difficult to get good. Well, actually, it was easy to get good at turns. I had to turn a lot."
Seeing the competitive fire in his son and his gift for going fast through water, Shpetim Hoxha built his son a 25-meter pool, the first such pool built in Tirane, Albania. Don't be surprised: It was common practice for the Hoxha's to fuel their competitive fires. Sidni's grandfather had played for Albania's national team in soccer and his father was nationally ranked in tennis.
The move paid off. Although few know it, Hoxha is a rarity at Old Dominion University. The junior, who specializes in freestyle at the shorter distances, has been to two Olympics and is aiming at making it three when Brazil hosts the Summer Games in 2016.
"The first time I went, I didn't really know how big a deal The Olympics are," Hoxha said. "I was 16. But the second time, I knew what a big deal it is to go. I really enjoyed the experience the second time around. And I'd love to go again in '16."
Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro. Honestly, that would be a pretty big three to compete in.
This past summer, Hoxha was thrilled to win his heat in the 100-meter freestyle. His time wasn't good enough to advance to the semifinals -- he has the 37th fastest time and only the top 16 move to the semis -- but sometimes it's not about that, particularly at The Olympics.
"I was there trying to do my best, which is really what it's all about and what it should be about," Hoxha said. "Only one guy in the end is going to be wearing a gold medal anyway."
This time around, that was American Nathan Adrian.
Hoxha's message was clear: It would be a real shame if all the rest thought they'd ultimately failed. There are, however, meets where Hoxha swims with his eye on the prize. Like the Colonial Athletic Association Championships, to be held at Jim McKay Natatorium in Fairfax, Va., Feb. 27-March 2.
Hoxha already owns two 50-meter CAA titles. He also won the 100 as a freshman on way to being named the CAA's rookie of the year. He'd like to leave with more than just a third CAA title in the 50. He'd like to make the field for the NCAAs.
ODU isn't a big-time program in swimming. If Hoxha were to make it, it would be a real accomplishment.
To qualify for the 50 in the NCAAs takes a time of 19.35. After that, the field is filled with the best of the rest on times. It would be monumental if Hoxha swam a 19.35. But strange things sometimes happen. This past Saturday, he broke the pool record at ODU for the 50 - he clocked a 20.49 in the 25-meter pool that requires a turn - without even really trying. The record board at ODU's pool had multiple references to "Hoxha" on it. But Saturday's record was a shocker.
"I wasn't training real hard coming in, so it was a little surprising," Hoxha said.
Then the fact that he also won the 100, 200 and anchored the winning 400-relay must have been a shocker. On Senior Day in a meet against William and Mary, it was the junior having his day.
Hoxha spoke in a relaxed manner as he covered the day and the upcoming CAA meet. It's tough to pick up his accent, tougher with each day as he gets more and more comfortable.
Hoxha, who is majoring in civil engineering, started learning English in the fifth grade.
"We can take classes starting in fifth grade, but you get the basics and really don't learn how to speak it," Hoxha said. "So to speak it better, I watched American movies."
The first American movie he watched was a classic: The Lion King.
OK, maybe that's not a movie you deem a classic, but think about it: He was 11 years old. And there's no doubt Disney thinks their cartoon masterpiece is a classic. And Albene Hoxha, his mother, thought it was the perfect first movie.
"I picked up Italian the same way, by watching movies," Hoxha said. "You'd be surprised how much you can pick up that way."
Hoxha still watches movies and when asked his favorite three, he clicked off Gladiator, The Dark Knight (Batman) and ... Cinderella Man.
Personally, I like them all and I really like that third one. It's about James J. Braddock shocking the world and winning the world heavyweight championship, beating Max Baer.
It's a real "feel good" movie.
It matches Hoxha well.