César Cielo (10 January, 1987) is a Brazilian freestyle swimmer and is among the fastest sprinters in the world at the 50m and 100m distances.
Having started his swimming in his home state of São Paulo in Brazil, Cielo moved to Auburn University in the US in 2005 in order to train within the NCAA system. In his second national championships in 2007, he swept every event he participated in, winning each of them in championship record times (50yd freestyle, 100yd freestyle, 4x50yd freestyle relay, 4x100yd freestyle relay, 4x50yd medley relay). A few weeks later he was competing in the World Championships in Melbourne, where he made the finals in both the 50m and 100m freestyle, narrowly missing out on a medal in the 100m by 0,04s. Later in the year, he won both 50m and 100m freestyle at the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, breaking the championship records in both events.
2007 was certainly a good year, but it was 2008 that launched Cesar into the upper echelons of the sport, with his first entry into sporting history. Cielo started off the year by winning four more NCAA titles, once again breaking records in the 50 and 100yd freestyle. In this, his final NCAA championships, the legacy he left was notable – the four fastest times for the 50yd freestyle in the history of the championships. While this was a memorable achievement, it paled in comparison to his heroics at the Beijing Summer Olympics, where he tied for third place in the 100m freestyle, and became the first Brazilian to win a swimming gold, in the 50m freestyle. Not only did he clinch an Olympic title, he did so a record time – 21.30s.
For those that had any doubts about his Olympian feats, Cielo proved his world class in 2009 by winning both the 50m and 100m freestyle events at the World Championships in Rome, the first in a championship record (21.08), the second in a world record (46.91). And then for good measure, he went on to eclipse the 50m world mark four months later at the Brazilian Championships in December, with a time of 20.91s. Cielo is only the second swimmer to win the 50m freestyle at both the Olympics and the subsequent World Championships (along with the legendary Alexander Popov), and only the third (along with Popov and Anthony Ervin) to win both the 50m and 100m freestyle in a single World Championships.
Following up on his heroics of 2008 and 2009 was always going to be difficult, but Cielo nonetheless produced more impressive results in the post hi-tech suit era with a silver and bronze in the 50m and 100m freestyle respectively at the Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, along with a ‘surprise’ gold in the 50m butterfly. At the year-end World Short Course Championships in Dubai, he won both the 50m and 100m freestyle, breaking the championship record in both events twice – in the semi-finals and the finals.
In two of the most competitive events in world swimming, Cesar Cielo has maintained an incredibly high level for several years, and he should justifiably be considered one of the firm favourites in his two events at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, and the 2012 Olympics in London.
“The fastest swimmer in the world.” That’s one incredible title to have, and for his golden moment, it’s Cesar Cielo’s. It’s profound in its simple clarity … and the mindboggling vision of how much work goes into deserving it. How one wears such a title says much about the man, and for his part, the Brazilian sprinter does it proud.
It was thanks to the urging of his mother Flavia, a Physical Education teacher, and the encouragement of his pediatrician father Cesar that the young Cielo took up swimming, although he also practised judo and volleyball. But it was the that deep, in-built quality of champions – the love of winning – that eventually persuaded him to drop the other two in favour of the pool. It was a simple choice – he was tall for his age, and as a result had to compete against older boys in judo … and he lost. In the pool, he won.
Letting go of her 15-year-old son to go and train in São Paulo some 130 km away was a difficult choice for a mother, but Flavia knew there was no option – Cesar had to go. It was a wise choice, and the beginning of the development of strong and fruitful bonds with two of Cielo’s most important influences, coach Alberto Silva (Albertinho) and Brazilian swimming legend Gustavo Borges. Two others later entered his life and left their own indelible marks on him as well – Brazilian sprint swimmer Fernando Scherer and Auburn University coach Brett Hawke.
César’s relationship with Gustavo Borges is particularly strong. Four-time Olympian and holder of two Olympic silver medals and two bronze, Borges presented César with the swimsuit he wore in Athens 2004 when he retired from competitive swimming. The gesture had a significant effect on the younger Cielo, and, in its own way, on Borges – when Cielo won his 50m freestyle gold in Beijing, Borges immediately left his commentary post and charged into the out-of-bounds swimmer area to give his protégé a bear hug.
Aside from the physical preparation for top competition, César believes that one’s mental frame of mind can be the difference between winning and losing, especially in a hectic and unpredictable race such as the 50m sprint. Reminders and motivators are posted all over his house: “Stick to your goals”, “You are your biggest adversary,” “Concentrate on the race,” along with inspirational collages of Borges, Popov, and others keep his mind in as sharp focus as possible to match his physical condition. Target times are posted on the ceiling above his bed … and are ritually burned when achieved and replaced by a more ambitious one. Perhaps his favourite motivator of all – one that he’s never forgotten – came from a girl who wrote: “Do not waste the chance that you have created.”
The shameless tears that Cesar shed on the Olympic podium speaks proudly of his affinity for his homeland. His biggest sacrifice in reaching the top has been the time he’s spent away from home and his family, who are his life. He therefore spends as much time as possible in Brazil, and still trains in São Paulo, swimming for local clubs in their national meets. It’s therefore fitting that it was in one such competition that he broke the 50m freestyle world record in 2009 under the watch of Albertinho. These, in the end, are the actions of a young man who knows where he comes from, and will never lose sight of its value.
But he also knows where he’s going. Amongst his greatest joys is the fact that he still has dreams to realize, which include the defence of his Olympic and World titles, improving on his 100m showing in London in 2012, and perhaps greatest of all, doing his country proud at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Naturally it will all take a lot of hard work, but for someone with their feet planted firmly on the ground who has already trod a long and demanding path to get where he has at such a young age, it’s simply part of the dream.