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Uzbek Olympic Swimmer Trains in Westchester

WESTCHESTER, N.Y. – Maftuna Tuhtasinova is already an Olympic-level swimmer in her native Uzbekistan, but with the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London nearing, the diminutive 17-year-old high school swimmer reached out for an opportunity to train in America, where Olympic legends are bred.

“I like being in America because I have a chance to train and have coaches to help me,” Tuhtasinova said. “I miss my family but I like it here. I want to go to college in America and swim.”

The Uzbek national swimming program does not approach the top level of the sport, so Tuhtasinova’s family reached out to Russian-American swimming coach Igor Shoukhardin for assistance in training Maftuna. Shoukhardin, whose swimmers won 11 Olympic medals during his career as a Russian National Team coach, connected with Mount St. Vincent swim coach Mike Loeffler, who offered support and a pool.

“We wanted to help Maftuna get the training she needed to prepare for the Olympic Games,” Loeffler said. “She is a very intelligent and dedicated athlete who has an opportunity to be a good college swimmer. We are thrilled that she is here to train.”

Tuhtasinova, who lives in Uzbekistan's capital city of Tashkent, arrived in the United States in February and has been in the pool for three weeks. Loeffler found welcoming water for the 5-foot-3, 100-pound swimmer at the Biondi School of Leake & Watts in Yonkers, where his College of Mount St. Vincent team practices. Shoukhardin, who puts Maftuna through her daily practice regimen, walked the pool deck at Biondi attending to the details of his young protégé’s training.

“Maftuna has the ability to be better and better,” said Shoukhardin, who represented the U.S.S.R. in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “She is not yet a top swimmer at the Olympic level. But she works hard and is focused. We want her to be stronger and more aggressive when she competes here.”

Tuhtasinova, who has been ranked as high as 28th in the world at her specialty backstroke event, is training for two hours a day, six days a week in the pool. Her sanctioned event times qualify her for the Uzbek team, and she must maintain that level to qualify for the Olympic Games this summer. She will compete for the first time in the United States this weekend in Buffalo at the Speedo Championship Series Long Course.

“Maftuna is looking forward to the Olympic Games, but we are looking at her long-term future,” Loeffler said. “We know she can be a successful college swimmer and get a great education here in the United States. Right now she is focused on swimming. She’s been away from home before, so she is handling the new experience very well.”

As for “Tuna,” who quickly goes from an intense, focused swimmer to a shy, giggling teen when asked about what food she likes or if she uses Facebook, the goals are swimming in the Olympics and going on to college next year. She reveals her passion for chicken, tuna fish and “sometimes pizza” and that “my birthday is March 24. I am 18”. Her unexpected first trip to the United States has been exciting and challenging as she learns more of the language and meets new friends. Tuna admits to only one negative.

“I miss my family,” she says, referring to her father, Erkinjon, and mother, Zamira, and brothers Sarvar and Sanjar. “My brothers are smaller and I’m the big sister. But they are happy for me. This is a good place to be for me.”

And a good beginning to fulfilling her dreams in the pool and for her future.

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