In May, Tom Pereles graduated from the University of Pennsylvania as the top student in chemical engineering. Packed in his suitcases when he left were a slew of awards, attesting to his ability inside and outside the world of academia.
While fine-tuning his mind on the rigors of chemical engineering for four years, the 21-year-old Potomac resident did not neglect his swimming. As he accumulated a 4.0 grade point average in his chosen field, he also excelled in the pool. By his senior year, he had qualified for the senior nationals in the 50-yard freestyle and earned most valuable honors on the Quakers swim team.
And all that came about after numerous college coaches informed Pereles as a senior in high school that he'd never amount to anything as a college swimmer.
"When those college coaches told me I wasn't good enough to swim in college, they were correct at the time," Pereles said. "But the coaches were not willing to look beyond the time and didn't realize that I was never in a program that worked out more than the MCSL (Montgomery County Swim League, strictly a summer program)." From the time he was 8 years old, Pereles' sole exposure to swimming was in the summers.
Once again, Pereles is about to tread into unknown waters, along with three other local athletes who will be among the 25 swimmers representing the United States in the Maccabiah World Games in Israel, July 15-25.
The other three all attended Kennedy High School. Jim Tuchler, 20, is now at Princeton and was chosen for the breaststroke and individual medley events.
Beth Spector, 20, attended North Carolina State for the past two years and is transferring to the University of Maryland this fall; she also was selected for her breaststroke abilities. And her sister Chris, 17, is one of the youngest swimmers selected to swim at the Tel Aviv University swimming complex. She is a backstroker.
The swimmers are at a precamp with 1984 U.S. Olympic Coach Ron Ballatore. The U.S. swim chairman, Norman Goldbloom, did not specify the location of the precamp due to concerns for security.
"The Maccabiah Games bring to Israel and to other countries the perception of normalcy," said Goldbloom. "Security has always been a major concern since the state of Israel was born. Most people have a healthy respect for Israeli security, but it doesn't mean nothing can happen. Maybe some day, the only thing people will worry about is who won the 100 freestyle."
The younger Spector characteristically was candid about her aspirations for the Games, saying, "This is awesome. I'm real excited. I'd like to go there and win; that would be nice."
That is a distinct possibility. U.S. swimmers have fared well at the Maccabiah Games, held quadrannually the year after the Olympic Games. Athletes must submit applications to the U.S. Committee of Sports for Israel in the fall before the competition. Selections are based on times.
"The swimming events are the exact same events as at the Olympics," said Goldbloom. "And in the 12 swimming events, these kids are one of the 12 fastest Jewish amateur swimmers registered as U.S. swimmers."
"It's a very great honor," said Pereles. "Ever since I was little I was highly involved in things like the Olympics and as a joke, I'd think, 'Gosh, it's so incredible to be able to swim for your country and participate in something like that.' But I certainly never believed I would actually be able to do it."