College recruiting stories don`t come any more bizarre than this tale from the Illinois-Chicago swimming tank.
Three of the best swimmers from Zimbabwe are making waves for UIC because coach Bob Danner successfully recruited them by hook and crook.
Their names are Vaughan Smith, Troy Smith and Natalie Thain.
- Thain holds four school records in individual events and has collaborated on four more record-setting performances in relays.
- Vaughan Smith swam for Zimbabwe in last summer`s Olympic Games and is a defending Association of Mid-Continent Universities champion and record-holder.
- Troy Smith (no relation to Vaughan) is another of the top performers on the UIC men`s team that will take a 6-1 dual-meet record into Tuesday`s home encounter with Notre Dame.
The hook that helped bring the trio to UIC was a tender trap laid several years ago by a former Flames` swimmer from Mt. Prospect named Carrie Barred.
The trap ensnared Mark Van Deventer, the school`s first recruit from the African nation once known as Rhodesia. He fell in love with Carrie, they got married, and last month he became an American citizen.
''It`s all because of Mark,'' Danner said. ''He liked it here, and he brought Darryl Smith, Troy`s brother, who swam in the World Games and holds our school record in the 200-yard butterfly.
''Then, Darryl brought Natalie and Troy and Vaughan.''
The most bizarre part of the Zimbabwe Connection story is the first chapter, how Danner ''discovered'' Van Deventer.
He did it by crook.
''In the summer of 1983, Mark and a kid from South Africa came to this country to train at the University of Michigan,'' Danner explained. ''We ran a Region 6 long course meet, and they took a van to Chicago.''
Enter the crook.
''Their van was broken into and things were stolen,'' Danner continued.
''They came into my office to make out a police report. We got to talking. Both of them said they were hoping to get scholarships in this country.''
Danner just happened to have a couple available.
''The kid from South Africa decided to go to school somewhere in Michigan but Mark came here,'' said Danner. ''Then, he met Carrie. I wasn`t coaching the women`s team at that time and there wasn`t a lot of camaraderie between the men and women swimmers. Nevertheless, Mark and Carrie found a way to hold hands during workouts.''
Soon the clasped hands reached across the ocean, and helped the Smiths and Thain leave their homeland, which has gone through a peaceful but radical change in its way of life.
When Rhodesia became known as Zimbabwe in the late 1970s, it marked the end of white minority rule and the beginning of government by the black majority. Along the way, Zimbabweans were able to avert the violence that has bloodied and scarred neighboring South Africa. But some aspects of the transition have been painful, and the future is shrouded with uncertainty.
Still, there are ties that bind Thain and the Smiths to Zimbabwe. They are happy to be in Chicago, but it isn`t home.
''People are different,'' said Thain. ''Life is so much slower in Zimbabwe, and people are more into long-term relationships. Here you`re meeting new people all the time. People are friendly but they`re more individualistic.''
''As swimmers, their stroke mechanics are excellent,'' said Danner.
''It`s obvious they all had an excellent early teacher. Academically, they also are very well-prepared.
''When Natalie came over two years ago it was December and she was barely 17. Then, we didn`t have a girl she could train with; she was that far advanced. I had her train with some members of the men`s team to make it more of a challenge and she wound up beating half of my guys.''
Thain is a junior, while the two Smiths are sophomores.
''Vaughan is basically a brilliant freestyler,'' Danner said, ''while Troy is good in both the freestyle and butterfly. Natalie swims the individual medley and the backstroke and, after two years, we`ve found out she`s also outstanding in the butterfly.''
According to Vaughan Smith, ''Here the enthusiasm for sports is about 10 times greater than it is in Zimbabwe. Here there`s also much more team spirit. ''Here, there are times when one is tempted not to study because one can always find so many other interesting things to do.''
But Danner isn`t worried about his Zimbabwe swimmers going off the deep end.
''They`re very dedicated and disciplined young people,'' he said. ''They put a lot into practice and their teams mean a lot to them. It`s reciprocal. Natalie is the captain of the women`s team, and when Mark and Darryl were here they captained the men`s team.''