Olympics

Italian breaststroker Scozzoli is a country boy

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LONDON (AP)

When Fabio Scozzoli was a kid, he wanted to be a tractor driver. Still a country boy at heart, his dream now is an Olympic medal.

This is the first Olympics for the 23-year-old Scozzoli, and his rise to the elite level has been all the more remarkable considering that he trains most of the year in a 25-meter pool near his small hometown.

He's among the contenders for gold in the men's 100-meter breaststroke, which opens the swimming program Saturday morning. The final is scheduled for Sunday night. Two-time defending Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima and Japanese teammate Ryo Tateishi will also be threats, as will Felipe Franca da Silva of Brazil and Brendan Hansen of the United States.

''There are a lot of rivals,'' Scozzoli said. ''I think Kitajima is the man to beat.''

The games are important to Scozzoli for another reason: His friend and rival, Alex Dale Oen, died from cardiac arrest in April, and it's a chance to pay him tribute. Scozzoli took silver behind Dale Oen in the 100-meter breaststroke at last year's world championships in Shanghai, with Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa taking bronze.

''I want to honor Alex with a medal,'' Scozzoli said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''His passing was a shock, because he was a friend. He was always there for all my medals. He was always a reference point for me. Now there is a big vacancy.''

Scozzoli was raised near Forli, a small town northwest of San Marino. His mother is a dentist, and his father grows peaches. As a member of Italy's national team, Scozzoli could easily join his teammates at Olympic training centers with 50-meter pools in Verona or Rome. But he prefers to train near his home in the small town of Imola, which is better known for formerly hosting Formula One's San Marino Grand Prix.

''He was born in the countryside and that's where his heart is,'' Scozzoli's Hungarian coach Tamas Gyertyanffy said. ''He doesn't like leaving there. Others in his position would be happy to move somewhere else to achieve their goal. ... It's a problem.''

The only 50-meter pool in Imola is outdoors.

''We can train seriously starting in June,'' Gyertyanffy said. ''Fortunately, the important races are usually in July and August.''

Scozzoli doesn't seem bothered by the pool situation in Imola.

''In the past seasons this has always worked,'' Scozzoli said. ''Once I get outside, that's when I start to improve, and by July I'm at my best. ... I don't like big cities. I like being at home.''

So far, his approach has paid off: Scozzoli won gold in the 50 breast - a non-Olympic event - and bronze in the 100 at the 2010 European Championships in Budapest for the first major medals of his career. At this year's European Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, he took gold in the 100 and silver in the 50.

After his first gold, Scozzoli got a tattoo on his wrist that says ''Budapest 2010.''

''It was my first medal, my first win, and it changed my life,'' he said. ''You never forget your first win.''

Depending on how Scozzoli fares in London, another tattoo may be in order - and a low-key celebration in the countryside.

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