MU men's swim captain uses swimming as means to a better life

Wednesday, November 19, 2008 | 5:37 p.m. CST; updated 10:58 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Bryan Difford, Missouri men's swimming team captain, swims laps at practice Monday afternoon at the MU Student Recreation Center. Difford came was recruited from his home in South Africa.

COLUMBIA — Swimming didn't start as an escape for Bryan Difford.

As a child in South Africa, the MU senior and captain of the men's swimming team was just like any other youngster who longed to be in the water.

"He was a born swimmer," Difford's father, Nigel Difford, said from South Africa. "He can't have been more than one-and-a-half (years old) and we were in the pool. He just loved to go to the water. He's loved water since the time he opened his eyes."

But as those eyes grew older, they saw a world that most could not imagine. He saw a country ravaged by violence and political instability. He was forced to see a childhood without a grandfather, who had been murdered in his home. And he eventually would come to see the water in a new way too, as a way out of South Africa, and to a better life.

Many of the people who Bryan Difford meets in that new life have an idea of the one he left in South Africa.

When asked what it's like to face questions  about Africa, Difford can't help but laugh. After everything that he's been asked, and all the misconceptions that people have about his home, nothing comes as a surprise anymore.

Fielding questions like, "How come you're not black?" or "Do you live in a mud hut?" and even "What animal do you ride to school?" have forced Difford to develop a sense of humor about the situation.

"The stupidest stuff, that you don't think anyone would actually say, I probably get asked that about once a week," Bryan Difford said.

"I usually just mess with people. "Like, 'Yeah, I live in a mud hut. Two stories, special mud. I have an elephant for when there's traffic and a cheetah for when I need to get there quickly."

There are some assumptions about his native country that Bryan Difford cannot simply laugh off. Their truth, and their impact on his life have been too great. They are the notions that paint Africa as a place of violence and crime.

From April of 1996 to March of 1997 25,500 murders took place in South Africa. In 1996, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's figures show nearly 20,000 murders in the United States. South Africa, though, had a population that was about one-sixth that of the United States.

While in South Africa, it was difficult for Difford, as it is with many people, to be moved by statistics. They're numbers without a human face.

"You always look over it when it has nothing to do with you," Bryan Difford said. "But when it does, you change."

For Bryan Difford it changed in 1996. One of those 25,500 murder victims was his own grandfather.

While at home painting, Bryan Difford's grandfather confronted a man in his home attempting to steal his cable box. He was fatally stabbed before the man fled the scene. Bryan Difford was just 10 years old at the time, and had difficulty coping.

"Being a youngster, it was traumatic," Nigel Difford said. "It was hugely traumatic. Somehow adults can deal with these things, but youngsters, it takes much more out of them."

To this day, it's the senselessness of the act that resonates with Bryan Difford.

"That's such a little thing," Bryan Difford said. "And to kill someone for that? That was the one thing where my parents were like, 'You need to focus on your swimming so you can get the hell out of here'".

Bryan Difford's swimming career had barely begun at that point, but his talent was already evident. He had started swimming competitively just two years before his grandfather's murder and started breaking school records almost immediately. By the time he was 11, Difford had made his way into the competitive world of club swimming in South Africa.

"He was very focused," Nigel Difford said. "The one thing he wanted to do all his life was to make sure that he got good enough to get himself to America to swim. That was really his challenge. That obviously wasn't the only reason that he wanted to swim, but it was one of the reasons — to get away from it all."

Difford got that chance after sending his swimming resume to a third-party recruiting facilitator who helps South African swimmers get into contact with universities outside the country. When Bryan Difford discovered that he had gotten his chance in America from the MU swimming program and head coach Brian Hoffer, it was the culmination of a decade-long fight to make his way out of Johannesburg.

"It was kind of like a dream," Bryan Difford said. "Me and my boarding school roommate, who's also here in America, we both said were going to go swim in America one day since we were like 12, 13 years old. It was awesome."

When he arrived in Columbia, the dangers of life in South Africa may have been left an ocean away, but the difficulty of transitioning to college life in a new country, alone, still loomed.

"A 22-hour flight away from the closest person I know, it's hard," Bryan Difford said. "To be by yourself, being 18, and growing up in a new place."

While Bryan Difford had to face the difficulty of the transition head-on, his father and new coach were impressed and surprised by how quickly he took to the situation.

"He seemed to have less of a hard time than some of the other internationals that I've had," Hoffer said. "When I pull in international athletes, it may take them a year to get used to the process."

"He (Bryan) just said, 'Look, it's tough. It's all new for me, but I've got to do these things. I've got to get on with it, and I've got to make it a success'," Nigel Difford said.

Difford said the most important part of the transition was to let go of the urge to rebel against the foreign elements of his new environment.

"It was rough for a little bit, but the key for me was the just accept it and to not fight it," he said. "The longer you fight it, you're just making it harder on yourself."

One part of being in the U.S. that Bryan Difford didn't have to fight was the new experience of team swimming. In international swimming, much of the competition is rooted in individual achievement. After arriving at MU, Difford quickly gravitated towards the team aspect that the sport has in college.

"When he came over here and with people that cared about something, he attached himself to that a lot," Hoffer said. "Over the last three and a half years that I've had the chance to coach him, he really loves that team aspect of the sport. He's our motivation captain and that's kind of interesting. Here's a guy that doesn't even come from our country but he's really into the team aspect."

"It's unbelievable," Bryan Difford said of the way that he's bonded with his teammates. "We've gotten so in tune with one another. The senior group this year is the group that changed this program. We just click."

Difford's four years in the Tigers swimming program are the longest he has spent with a group of teammates since he was 13 years old, and those connections are the roots to what Difford is hoping can be a future in America.

An international business major at MU, he hopes to be able to find an employer after school that will sponsor his green card and allow him to stay in the country.

Despite how much Difford has enjoyed the U.S. and how badly he wishes to continue his life here, he stresses that he also has a great love for his old home. So much so that Difford went to South Africa's Olympic trials this summer in hopes of representing the country in Beijing in the 200-meter individual medley. He fell three spots short of qualifying.

"There's so much potential," Difford said of South Africa. "The country is unbelievable. It's beautiful. It's got every little bit of scenery and so many things to do. There are so many different people. But it's never going to be given a chance."

That chance continues to be spoiled by the political instability in South Africa. Thabo Mbeki formally resigned as president on Sept. 21, and the front-runner to fill his position is Jacob Zuma, whom corruption charges were levied against in 2006, but were later dismissed.

Difford has been keen to focus on the positive aspects of his old home, but no matter how often or greatly he becomes homesick, it's the family that he wants to someday have that makes his future in the U.S. so important.

"To get out and to raise your family in a place where you don't have to look over your shoulder every five seconds," Difford said. "That's a huge deal."

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Brett Knight November 20, 2008 | 12:32 a.m.

Great story, Robert. You do a good job weaving between the issues Bryan has faced in the U.S. and in South Africa. This is award-worthy.

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K K November 20, 2008 | 8:40 a.m.

YAY BRYAN!!! I'm glad they did a story on you! you deserve it!

(Report Comment)
Donut Lover November 20, 2008 | 1:15 p.m.

Excellent story with a nice, fun touch of humor. Belongs on the front page.

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