Crowd sends off Olympic hopeful Donatelli
Brian Donatelli of LaGrange Park talks about how he got into swimming during a pep rally in his honor for his upcoming swimming race at the Olympic trials. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 22, 2012 3:06PM
Maybe it’s the simple, pure flame passed from torch to cauldron amidst over-the-top pomp and pageantry. Perhaps it’s the signature anthem, which almost reflexively induces goosebumps. It’s definitely the sight of the Stars & Stripes being slowly raised, as a bouquet-holding, ribbon-looped young man or woman stands atop a podium that’s elevated slightly but significantly above the athletes to the right and left.
For these and other reasons, there’s a reason why the Olympic Games are greatly anticipated and closely watched by millions of people the world over. The Olympics are supposed to (and usually do) bring out the best in people, from the competitors to the gathered world leaders to those of us glued to our TV sets or downloading the latest game, match or meet footage.
Can you tell I get geeked out a little bit about the summer Olympics?
While there’s nothing like watching your home country rack up medal counts, whether in popular events like women’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s swimming and diving or in more obscure but fun-to-watch events like table tennis and trampoline, it’s always moving to learn the backstory of certain Olympians as they have pushed themselves and sometimes pushed their luck to make it to the pinnacle of sporting.
In La Grange, the love of the Olympic Games and pride in a hometown athlete — with a great backstory — was on full display for local swimmer Brian Donatelli.
The Lyons Swim Club, based in La Grange and Western Springs, held a pep rally to send off Donatelli to the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., which begin this week ahead of the London Games. Donatelli, a 19-year-old from LaGrange Park and a 2011 graduate of Lyons Township High School who now swims for the University of Iowa, qualified for the U.S. Olympic men’s swimming preliminary trials in the 50-meter freestyle.
On June 20, the pool at the LTHS South Campus was festooned with red, white and blue balloons, sparkly red garlands and small American flags as hundreds of supporters gathered in the bleachers to cheer on Donatelli, who swam for the Lyon Swim Club and, growing up, during the summers for the La Grange Field Club.
Scores of young swimmers, in fact, were there, making signs for Donatelli and toting around sticks affixed with a photo of the Olympic hopeful.
“It’s really inspirational,” said Lyons swimmer Margaret Meehan, 9.
“It’s cool to see someone from Lyons going to the Olympic trials,” added her teammate, Katie McDermott. “I am going to be rooting for him.”
The lump-in-your-throat Olympic feeling at the pep rally started in earnest with the playing of the national anthem, sung by Lyons swimmer Isaac Wisthuff of La Grange. It continued with heartfelt speeches by Donatelli’s head swim coach at Lyons, Casey Hnatiuk, and his coach from Lyons Township High School, Scott Walker, who had coaxed Donatelli out of basketball during his freshman year and back onto the pool “where he belonged.”
“I said, ‘You need to be swimming!’ And he went on to become the most decorated swimmer in the history of Lyons Township High School. It’s been an awesome progression to see, and Brian’s never forgotten where he came from,” said Walker, who actually started coaching Donatelli when he was six years old and swimming in the summertime for the field club.
Donatelli, who thanked the crowd for supporting his effort, described himself as a “pool rat” growing up who loved to swim for the sake of it. That love of swimming literally and figuratively has propelled him in the water when he returned home this summer to train with the Lyons Swim Club. At the same time, he is giving back to young swimmers by helping coach at the La Grange Field Club this year.
“Being here is unbelievable,” Donatelli said of the pep rally in his honor, looking simultaneously humbled and thrilled.
He called out the young swimmers in the stands who were waving around their signs and blowing noisemakers: “Seeing you guys makes my day. That’s why I’m here,”
Given the success of this year’s slate of swimmers at the Lyons Swim Club — which included a relay team of 10-year-old girls that was first in the state and fifth in the country — the sense of inspiration from Donatelli was palpable.
“Hopefully, this is the first of many Olympic trial pep rallies we’ll have here,” Hnatiuk said.
Meanwhile, in our Olympic-loving house (which also contains three young swimmers), we’ll be looking for the swim trials on NBC Sports on June 30, to see if we can spot Donatelli in the lane during his heat in the men’s 50-meter free. And we kept the stick with Brian’s face on it from the pep rally, to hoist in his honor when he dives off the blocks into the blue, beautiful water.