Osvaldo Pito Alberty

By Emmett Hall STAFF WRITER to the Sun-Sentinel
December 7, 2016 | >>SunSentinel Link<<

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By Sharon Robb STAFF WRITER to the Sun-Sentinel
October 1, 2005 | >>SunSentinel Link<<

JUPITER — Osvaldo Pito Alberty coached his high school divers from a wheelchair at Friday's Palm Beach County Diving Championships with the same enthusiasm he had when he was diving.

At 18, the St. Andrew's diving coach was stricken by Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological condition that paralyzes the muscles and tendons.

Eleven years later, he has regained movement down to his hips but is still confined to a wheelchair. It doesn't seem to dampen his enthusiasm for the sport in which he was once considered an Olympic hopeful for Puerto Rico.

He coaches more than 20 high school and club divers from Palm Beach and Broward and hopes one day to coach at the college level.

"I miss diving, but this is how I stay connected," said Alberty, who got married earlier this year.

"Even though I am in a wheelchair it doesn't mean I can't do what I want to do. I don't let anything hold me back. That is one thing I try to teach my divers. There is no such word as can't ... keep working hard and don't get discouraged."

The water, he said, is his best therapy. With some assistance, he can dive off springboard. Once a year he "treats" himself to one dive off the 10-meter board and added "of course I'm sore the next day." At 3, he was first diagnosed with the condition. He regained full movement five years later.

St. Andrew's junior Michele Bertolino, who won her first major girls' 1-meter springboard title with 490.50 points in one of the county's most competitive meets, said Alberty is an inspiration.

"I know that he would probably like to be able to dive again," Bertolino said. "To see him here is inspiring.

"I'm extremely happy with first place. I came in hoping to do well and I did the best I could."

Benjamin junior Jonathan Speed claimed the county's top spot left vacant by brothers Taylor and Cameron Dehn, who left St. Andrew's to move to California last summer. Speed won the boys' title with 550.75, the only diver to crack 500 points.

St. Andrew's had three divers in the top 14 including Devin Richman who finished fourth. The biggest surprise was John I. Leonard with three first-year divers -- Sean Ryals, Josh Zuckerman and Matt Chandler -- in the top seven for 43 combined points.

The Lancers are in good shape heading into today's Palm Beach County Swimming Championships at Lake Lytal Aquatic Complex. John I. Leonard boys and Suncoast girls are the favorites.

GIRLS: 1. Michele Bertolino, SA 490.50, 2. Amanda Frick, DWY 429.65, 3. Becca Tassell, JUP 422.05, 4. Gabrielle Shaw, PV 413.90, 5. Morgan Canfield, JUP 383.95, 6. Nicole Duchene, LW 377.30, 7. Stephanie Galo, WELL 370.35, 8. Lexy Dean, BEN 298.35, 9. Camile Cicchini, RPB 292.80, 10. Ariel Paull, WELL 285.80.

BOYS: 1. Jonathan Speed, BEN 550.75, 2. Greyson Patten, BEN 435.55, 3. Sean Ryals, JIL 338.15, 4. Josh Zuckerman, JIL 285.00, 5. Devin Richman, SA 277.30, 6. Anthony Grigiro, CN 261.85, 7. Matt Chandler, JIL 260.90, 8. Bryant Spear, SAN 258.95, 9. Joaquin Anico, LW 250.25, 10. Chris Salks, SA 254.75, 11. Cruise Boyle, ATL 229.75.



By Rick Adelman Special Correspondent
August 31, 2003 | >>SunSentinel Link<<

There was a time not long ago when Osvaldo "Pito" Alberty was a magician in midair.

He could spring from a three-meter diving board and do flips, somersaults and twists before making a silky entry into the water, legs straight and toes pointed. He was one of the best divers in his native Puerto Rico and qualified for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

But a year before the Games, Alberty started experiencing flu-like symptoms, a high fever and muscle weakness. Within a week he was paralyzed from the neck down, a victim of Guillain-BarrM-i (Ghee-yan Bah-ray) syndrome. The cause of the disease is not known and there is no effective treatment. It can strike anyone, at any age, regardless of gender or ethnic background.

It was a particularly disheartening blow for Alberty, who originally contracted the disease at the age of 3 and fully recovered, disproving the doctors who predicted he would never play sports.

"I am one-in-a-million who got it twice," said Alberty, who spent 17 days in the hospital and has been in physical therapy since. Even though he can stand and walk, as long as he is holding onto something for support, Alberty, 26, mostly gets around in a wheelchair.

"I do have moments when I get depressed," he said. "But that happens when I'm home alone. Mostly I'm upbeat because I have great friends and a very supportive family. I feel like I'm very blessed."

In the back of his mind, Alberty keeps his Olympic fantasy alive. He is hoping for a complete recovery. In the meantime, he helps shape the dreams of other divers as coach of the Coral Springs Diving Team at Florida Atlantic University. There are around 20 participants in the program, from age 6 to adult.

"It's not that difficult to teach from a wheelchair because I couldn't get on the board and help them out anyway," said Alberty, who moved to the United States when he was 10.

Merle Geierman, 45, of Royal Palm Beach has been with Alberty since March, having returned to a sport in which he once excelled. Geierman, who set six school records as a high school senior, had been away from diving for 27 years.

"It's something I always wanted to do, kind of like finishing up a chapter in my life," said Geierman, a personal trainer. "I remembered about 50 percent, the basic dives and the basic approach work. I've had to work on the timing and mechanics."

Fear is probably the biggest obstacle divers face. Even Olympians worry about cracking their head on the board or platform, Alberty said. Fear is the enemy that must be conquered and sometimes it's a slow process.

"When I started diving in Puerto Rico, the first thing we had to do was jump off the 10-meter platform, which is 33.6 feet high," Alberty said. "Once you do that the three-meter board looks like [chump] change.

"Most of these kids aren't afraid of anything," Alberty added. "They just go ahead and do it. Some of the kids, we have to work on their fear. For instance, if someone is afraid of the three-meter board, I have them go up there. They don't have to jump. I just want them to look down and whenever they feel more confident they just go ahead and step off. Now, getting them to learn dives up there is a different story. That takes a little longer."

Dryland practice is a valuable tool for the divers. In one section of the FAU swim complex there is a trampoline the divers use to polish their techniques before attempting the dives for real. Alberty also will hook his divers up to a harness and belts and then simulate dives while being suspended over a cushiony port-a-pit.

"It's easier to learn that way and from there you transfer into the water," Alberty said. "Sometimes you have to hold them back a little. You don't want them to progress too quickly for safety reasons. Even though we know they can do the dive, they may not have control in the air and could hit the board."

Taking things one step at a time is a philosophy Alberty applies to his daily life. He tries not to engage in self-pity, preferring to concentrate on his rehabilitation.

"Stuff happens and you have to deal with it," he said. "It was very frustrating when I got sick the second time. I was thinking, what am I going to do with my life now? I mean, my goal was to make the Olympic team and actually go to the Olympics in Atlanta. But that dream was shattered. Now I just want to dive again."



By CINDY KLINGER Special to the Sun-Sentinel
November 17, 2000 | >>SunSentinel Link<<

CORAL SPRINGS — Pink, blue and black flip-flops rest poolside at the Coral Springs Aquatics Complex. The feet that travel in the shoes are nearby, bouncing on springboards towering over a sparkling pool.

Some of the feet belong to many of the best divers in South Florida.

One diver flips off the high tower and spirals downward. Depending on her upward spring, she will hit the water in about 1.4 to 1.6 seconds, breaking the surface at 30-35 miles per hour.

Which is why all of the divers try hard not to belly-flop.

Seven-year-old Mike tries to work up the courage to catapult off a much lower board. He looks down into the water, not sure he wants to jump. Minutes later, he backs down the ladder.

"Pito!" yells the little boy in his baggy trunks. "I don't want to jump off the high board!"

"Okay!'' yells Pito from his wheelchair.

Head diving coach Dave Burgering and assistant diving coach Pito Alberty know the thrills of spinning through the skies and the work needed to make it on to an Olympic team. Both did. And both also know the sense of loss when their Olympic dreams suddenly end. Burgering, also head coach at Florida Atlantic University and the stepfather of two, was to compete on the U.S. Olympic diving team in 1980. But at the last minute, President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Moscow games. Burgering's dream was over.

Years later, just weeks before Alberty was to leave for the 1996 Atlanta Games as part of the Puerto Rican Olympic diving team, he caught a viral infection that turned into Guillain-Barre syndrome. His legs wound up partially paralyzed.

"I remember not feeling well. I had the flu,'' Alberty said. "I was lying down and stood up to walk and felt weak and dizzy, and fell. My father had to help me stand.''

In time, doctors have told him, with physical therapy and exercise, the 23-year-old should be able to walk and even dive again. So, this becomes the young man's dream.

"The kids love him,'' said Mike Dehn, an engineer and champion diver in his youth who never lost his love to leap.

One of many middle-aged divers who practice at the public complex, Dehn won the 1998 world championships at the Nike World Master Olympics in Oregon. Dehn's children accompany him to the pool.

"Pito [also] coaches my kids at St. Andrews," Dehn said. "They love him. He brings discipline to the poolside. He pushes the kids."

A common concern voiced by parents, according to Burgering, is kids hitting their heads on diving boards.

"If kids are taught properly how to dive, hitting heads on boards is rare,'' he said.

"There is a difference between teaching and coaching. We have kids who come here wanting to dive but they can't swim. We have to teach these kids first. You can't tell them to flip if they have never done a somersault. I tell the instructors to use their imaginations to come up with ways to explain how to do things. Every dive can be broken down into smaller skill progressions.''

Burgering is realistic, knowing that most kids are not going to become Olympians.

"The competition in bigger countries makes their chances small,'' he said. "There are only two athletes per gender per event chosen. You can't treat each child as if he or she is going to the Olympics. If you have athletes with that potential, you can push them. But for the rest of the population, the Olympics cannot be the be-all and end-all. Otherwise, rather than enjoying the journey, they'll end up bitter,'' he said.

Many divers are former gymnasts. One, 15-year-old Holly Jakits, says the transition from gymnastics to diving "has been easy.'' But still, she said, there are moments.

"Looking down from the 10-meter [tower] is intense. It's all willpower. It's scary but you have to make yourself go," said Jakits, a student at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton who hopes one day to make the national diving team.

"Dave is a great coach. He is like a good friend.''

Another gymnast-turned-diver is 11-year-old Stefani Colbacchini from Coral Springs. Her father, Bill, who was a pilot in Operation Desert Storm, sometimes watches from the pool decks.

"Stefani was losing the fire she had in gymnastics,'' he said. "She loves diving.''

Another assistant coach, Matt Streicher, who dives for Florida Atlantic University, is nearby watching every move the students make.

And they make a lot of moves. Things are bouncing everywhere at this place.

"Pito, can I do a front line-up?'' yells one boy from a high dive.

"Pito, can I do a double with Nick?'' yells another child.

"Pito, can I go on the 7 meter?'' screams another.

"I feel like I need a tape recorder that repeats itself saying, `Yes you can. ... Yes you can. ...' Alberty said.

Alberty does more than just coach. He is designing a Web page for the Coral Springs diving team's 30 members.



Rose Lee Show 2/4/2006

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