As a 9-year-old growing up in Algeria, Mehdi Addadi didn't exactly have a national swimming hero to emulate.
It's not as if the sport is tremendously popular in his homeland.
What he did have at his disposal was far more valuable.
"I just happened to live right next to a pool," said Addadi, a senior at UMBC who is the school's most accomplished swimmer.
A career that sprung from the most modest of beginnings hit full stride two summers ago when Addadi represented Algeria in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Now, he is focused on finalizing perhaps the finest swimming career in UMBC history.
Addadi, 24, holds school records in the 100-meter backstroke (48.85 seconds), 200 backstroke (1:49.29) and 100 butterfly (48.67). He is also a member of four different relay teams that have posted school records.
But it is a first that he has yet to accomplish that continues to drive Addadi. No Retriever has ever qualified individually for the NCAA men's swimming championships.
At the Eastern College Athletic Conference championships tomorrow through Saturday at the University of Pittsburgh, Addadi will attempt to become the first. His best opportunity will come in the 100 butterfly, his favorite event.
"I'm pretty confident he will make it at the ECACs," said UMBC's first-year coach, Chad Cradock, who swam for the Retrievers in the mid-1990s and holds two school records.
"Very few athletes can make the NCAA qualifying cut. You're talking about the top 1 percent in the country."
Cradock estimates that Addadi, whose best time this season in the 100 butterfly is 48.74, is about a half- to three-fourths of a second off the time he will need to qualify.
To earn an NCAA berth, a swimmer needs to have roughly one of the top 24 times in an event in the country.
At last year's ECACs, on his way to three individual titles and Most Outstanding Swimmer honors, Addadi swam his school-record 48.67 in the 100 "fly."
That time was good enough to gain NCAA provisional status, but not quite good enough to warrant a trip to the championships.
The soft-spoken Addadi said making the NCAAs this year would be "a perfect way to finish college."
It would also be the most fitting way to complete a perfect season. In 12 dual meets this season, Addadi, a co-captain, has taken first place in every individual event in which he has competed.
He usually races in three events per meet.
"A very important part of being a captain is leading by example. People can talk all they want, but it comes down to what they do," said senior co-captain Evan Patrick, who also has a shot at qualifying for the NCAAs in the 200 freestyle.
"Mehdi is a great example of that. No matter the situation, he pulls through. We follow his lead in the pool."
With an 11-1 record in dual meets, the Retrievers, who have won four straight ECAC team titles, are the most successful men's team in program history.
Cradock credits much of that success to the camaraderie of a team that includes swimmers from Peru, Jamaica, Sweden and Canada.
Then there is Addadi, a native of Dely Ibrahim, Algeria, who has a tremendous athletic pedigree.
Mehdi's father, Amar, competed in the pole vault, once holding a national record. He is now a volunteer with the Algerian Olympic Committee. His mother, Salima, played team handball.
As a 19-year-old, Mehdi Addadi came to the United States and enrolled at the Bolles Preparatory School in Jacksonville, Fla., one of the top prep swimming programs in the country and a constant on UMBC's recruiting radar.
Addadi, who spoke Arabic and French when he arrived in this country, credits Bolles for teaching him English and preparing him for college here.
Nothing, however, could have prepared Addadi for what would happen after the Sept. 11 tragedy.
In mid-January, Addadi returned to his off-campus apartment and found a message on his answering machine from an FBI agent who said he specialized in immigration.
Addadi returned the call and, within 30 minutes, the FBI agent was at his door, wanting to see his passport and visa.
"He was asking me where I went to school, if I had military experience, if I am in touch with any terrorism groups," Addadi said. "I understood where he was coming from, but it was like I felt that we were all being put in one basket.
"It was like, if you are Algerian or you are Muslim and you are a student, they had their eye on you."
Addadi, who traditionally returns to Algeria during the summer, was one of two members of his country's swim team in Sydney for the 2000 Olympics.
Addadi, who qualified for the games in the summer of 1999 via the All-African Games, finished 44th out of 63 swimmers in the 100 butterfly and in 46th place in the 100 backstroke in Sydney.
A financial economics major, he said he would like to remain in the United States after graduation this spring, but because of immigration laws, his choices are limited.
As for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Addadi said: "It really depends, but right now, if I had a choice, I'd say yes, I would like to go back to the Olympics."