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With a family tree like Luca Urlando’s, he was bound to inherit athletic ability.
“There is a debate inside our family — where did it come from?” said his father, Alex. “You never know. It’s something we joke about.”
The 18-year-old was the top contender in the men’s 200-meter butterfly before the coronavirus pandemic forced the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to July 2021.
But while the color of Urlando’s eyes or the shape of his chin can be traced to particular relatives, his talent is another matter.
Luca’s mother, Milissa, was a swimmer through high school. One of her coaches was 1968 Olympic gold medalist Debbie Meyer and she belonged to the same club team as 1992 Olympic champion Summer Sanders.
Alex was an Italian national champion in the discus and an All-American at the University of Georgia, finishing fifth at the 1994 NCAA Championships. He still holds the school record.
Grandfather Giampaolo Urlando competed in three Olympic Games for Italy from 1976 to 1984 as a hammer thrower.
And paternal grandmother Maria Luisa Mion was a javelin thrower on the Italian national team.
“Obviously, my dad’s side has quite a few good athletes, and my mom’s side does, too,” said Luca.
So the answer to the question “Where did his talent come from?” is probably: All of them.
And Urlando’s own hard work and dedication are taking him the rest of the way.
Last summer was a whirlwind for the Sacramento, California, swimmer. He broke Michael Phelps’ 17-18 National Age Group record in the 200 fly in June with a time of 1 minute, 53.84 seconds, which was the fastest by an American in 2019 and the third-best mark in the world. Phelps even direct messaged him on Instagram. When Phelps set his record of 1:53.93 back in 2003, Urlando was a little over a year old.
He ranks No. 11 on the world all-time list and is the third-fastest American behind Phelps (1:51.51 in 2009) and Tyler Clary (1:53.64 in 2009).
Urlando went on to win his first senior national title at Stanford in July in the 200 fly. At that meet he qualified for the junior world championships held in Budapest, Hungary, where he won five gold medals — two individual and three on relays.
Luca Urlando celebrates winning the men's 200-meter butterfly at the FINA Junior Swimming World Championships on Aug. 25, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary.
A Shoulder Setback
And then Urlando’s momentum came to a screeching halt in mid-January. He dislocated his left shoulder while going all out in a 50-meter butterfly in training.
On his second or third stroke, Urlando noticed the shoulder had popped out of place.
“My heart definitely dropped,” he said.
Urlando began rehab, expecting to ease into the season by swimming only freestyle at the TYR Pro Swim Series event in April in Mission Viejo, California.
When practices shut down in mid-March because of shelter-at-home rules, Urlando began working out in a neighbor’s 25-meter pool.
“I haven’t been able to test my shoulder yet by doing butterfly, but I think it’s progressing nicely,” he said Thursday.
For Urlando, word of the Olympic postponement summoned one clear emotion: “Relief,” he said. “It gives me another year to train and heal, which is perfect.
“The pressure of not being able to train and still having the Olympics was pretty stressful. I’m just thinking of it as a plus.”
At the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming, which have been rescheduled for next June in Omaha, Nebraska, Urlando expects to swim the 200 fly and the 200 freestyle, an event in which he only has to make the top six to qualify for the 4x200 free team. He could possibly compete in the 400 free and 100 fly as well.
However, with so many great track athletes in Urlando’s family, it begs the question: How did swimming win out as his sport?
“I’d always ask my dad every once in a while why I didn’t get into track,” Urlando said. “I was already doing a few sports when I was younger, so I don’t think it was really an option. I played soccer for a few years, basketball, water polo for a while, and then when I was 12 I stopped doing the other sports and started to focus on swimming.”
Unlike team sports, he said, “I always liked how with swimming you kind of got what you put into it.”
Alex explained that Luca and his sister Isabella, who is also a swimmer, started playing in their maternal grandparents’ pool when they were little. Their mom taught them the mechanics, and by age 5 or 6 they were competing.
“That’s how they got into swimming and I’m happy about that,” Alex said. “I’m not one of those former athletes who wants their kids to do their sport.”
He added that children learn to swim at a younger age than they take up an implement like the discus, hammer or javelin.
“In the back of my mind, I thought we can always start track and field later,” Alex said. “By the time they got to that age, especially Luca, he was already very good, so we stuck with swimming.”
A Kid With A Kick
Luca Urlando competes in the men's 200-meter butterfly at the Toyota U.S. Open Championships on Dec. 7, 2019 in Atlanta.
Urlando gravitated toward butterfly and his mastery of the dolphin kick sets him apart, said Billy Doughty, coach of DART Swimming club in North Highlands, California.
“I’ve never seen anyone who can kick quite like he can — his core strength and his balance in the water,” said Doughty, who has worked with Urlando since he was 13. “He really makes adjustments super easy, and so he definitely feels the water better than most people.”
Urlando thinks he gets his powerful kick from his dad.
“From what he’s told me, throwers are usually really explosive, especially from the lower body,” Luca said.
His arm motion, though, could be a legacy from his grandmother.
“I tell him, ‘You could have been a great javelin thrower,’” Alex said, “I think he’s outstanding in the butterfly because he has that arm-whipping motion. It’s genetic. It’s not something he was trained to do. It’s just the way he moves.”
Luca has never tried the javelin, but said when he was younger he could throw a ball pretty far, especially in water polo.
“Throwing, you have to have super flexible shoulders — from what I’ve heard from my dad — and have a strong upper body, which makes a lot of sense when you think about butterfly,” he said, “because a lot of the top butterfliers like Phelps and some of the Hungarians just have super flexible shoulders.”
Urlando’s mental game has had a boost from his grandfather.
“He always gives me some pointers about how to focus before an event, how to keep your mind on straight when you’re in a big competition,” Luca said.
Giampaolo Urlando, who lives in Italy, was in Budapest last summer when his grandson took individual honors in the 200 fly and 200 free and helped set three world junior records en route to victories in the 4x100 free, mixed 4x100 free and 4x200 free. Luca also swam the 100 fly and was one of the team captains.
On The World Stage
His first major international experience “definitely taught me how to manage my energy,” Urlando said, “because you need to take naps and recover properly in order to have a good day the next day. I think it really helped me being on a really big stage like world juniors.”
Alex Urlando, who supervises Luca’s dryland training, could have the rare distinction of seeing his father and his son compete in the Olympic Games. Alex was 13 when he watched coverage of the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984 on television even though it was the middle of the night in Italy.
“That would be cool,” Alex said, but he doesn’t talk about it with Luca.
“At the beginning, (getting into sports) was always about doing something physical and enjoying it,” said Alex, “and to tell you the truth even now we don’t really talk about the Olympics. I don’t know if it’s superstition, or just if it’s going to happen, it will happen. But we don’t want to put too much pressure on him by talking about it.
“I’m sure he does feel pressure, but he has been able to handle it so far quite well. We tell him just to stay within himself.”
Before last summer, Urlando was a long shot to make the 2020 Olympic team, much less to win an Olympic medal.
“A year ago we set a goal to go top eight in the Olympic trials,” Doughty said, “and that goal has changed a lot in the last year with his progression. Now he is a legitimate hopeful to make the Olympic team and ultimately once you do that, you’re not just happy to be there. We want to represent our country and go in and try to get a medal for our country.”
Luca Urlando races in the men's 200-meter butterfly at the Phillips 66 National Championships on July 31, 2019 in Stanford, Calif.
Red, White And Blue All The Way Through
Luca has dual citizenship, which means he has an Italian passport as well as an American one. Before and after he broke the Phelps age group record, officials from the Italian swimming federation made overtures about Urlando competing for Italy. After all, only the top two qualify in individual events in the United States, while he would be virtually assured of selection to the Italian team with less competition.
The Italians were politely turned down.
“The way we think about it is Luca was born in this country, we are proud Americans and he is a product of the USA Swimming world in terms of coaches, support and knowledge,” said Alex, who became a U.S. citizen in 2010. “So we want to stay true to that.”
Luca said “as early as I can remember” he knew his grandfather had been an Olympian. Giampaolo won his first national title in the hammer throw in 1967 — almost making the 1968 Italian Olympic team — and won his last national title in 1983.
Although Alex won the Italian national championships in 1996, a selection committee chose another discus thrower who had a better mark from the year before to go to the Atlanta Games.
“It would have been a nice experience for me,” Alex said. “I was not at the level of Luca or my father. Unfortunately I didn’t get to go, but I was very close.”
While Luca didn’t follow his father into track and field, he is following both of his parents to the University of Georgia, where they met.
Although they encouraged Luca to go on recruiting trips to other schools, Georgia turned out to be the best fit and he’ll enroll in the fall.
While Urlando’s increasing versatility will serve him well in collegiate swimming, the 200 fly, an event some swimmers dislike intensely, remains his first love.
“I like it because it takes a lot of willingness to do it,” he said. “Also I think it’s fun.”
The easygoing Urlando said some people might be surprised to find out he is only 5-foot-11 and weighs 167 pounds.
“I’m not necessarily the tallest swimmer,” he said. “A lot of people usually associate really tall people with being good swimmers.”
Since Urlando is only 18, he could grow a bit more. After all, his father competed at 6-foot-3 and 255-260 pounds.
Yet, his current size is working for him.
“He’s not physically imposing by any means,” said Doughty, “but he definitely has all the other aspects of a great athletic family.
“He gets the right mindset from his dad and grandfather of how he approaches things, his work ethic and just his drive.”
It must be in his genes.