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UD student Toni Sabev competed in the 100 breaststroke and 200 breaststroke at the NCAA Championships in April.
UD student Toni Sabev competed in the 100 breaststroke and 200 breaststroke at the NCAA Championships in April.

Success in and out of the pool

Photo by UD Athletics

Toni Sabev, a junior finance and MIS double major, is the first swimmer in UD history to compete in the NCAA Championships

The blink of an eye — 0.06 of a second — was all that separated University of Delaware men’s swimmer Toni Sabev from earning a spot in the 2023 NCAA Championships. The year before, he missed the cut time by just 0.2 seconds.

But Sabev wouldn’t be denied in 2024. His times in the 100 breaststroke and 200 breaststroke at the CAA Championships qualified him for the NCAA meet, enabling him to become the first UD swimmer in program history to participate in the NCAA Championships when he competed in both events.

Sabev, a native of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, has helped elevate the entire UD program, which has finished in second place in the CAA standings in each of the last three years. A junior finance and management information systems (MIS) double major, Sabev is also an excellent student in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and hopes to enter the financial field following graduation.

From Bulgaria to Newark

Sabev first learned about UD from his brother, Simeon, who joined the Blue Hen swimming program a year earlier. Sabev excelled in swimming in Bulgaria, and that, combined with his grades, made him stand out to institutions in the United States. He’d never set foot on UD’s campus, but with insight from his brother and just one phone call with UD head coach Pablo Marmolejo, Sabev committed sight unseen.

“My dad said the campus was pretty close to D.C., New York and Philadelphia, and it was nice to be in this part of the United States,” he said.

Having his brother already a part of the campus and swimming team helped Sabev make a smooth transition at UD.

“He had already established himself here. Everybody knew him. Everybody liked him,” Sabev said. “So when I came, I already had this status of being Simeon’s brother, which was nice because he had built really good relationships with really good people, so then I had the opportunity to embark on those relationships while also building my own to be surrounded by hard-working people.”

Sabev, who was mostly training on his own while in Bulgaria, thrived on the power of joining a team.

“Once I realized what you could achieve with competitiveness, and having people cheering for you, and you cheering for people … the energy — it was just something else,” he said.

Making an immediate impact

Sabev wasted no time in becoming a key member of the Blue Hens, as he set school records in the 100 breaststroke, 200 breaststroke and 200 individual medley as a first-year student and athlete. He earned All-Colonial Athletic Association honors in five events, including a silver medal in the 100 breaststroke, bronze medals in the 200 breaststroke, and bronze medals in three relays. He helped UD finish in second place in the team standings, the Blue Hens’ best ever finish at the CAAs.

Named the CAA Rookie Swimmer of the Month in January, Sabev capped his impressive rookie season by winning the 50 breaststroke at the CSCAA National Invitational Championship.

Sabev enjoyed another outstanding year as a sophomore, winning the 100 breaststroke event in seven meets and the 200 breaststroke in four. He set program records in three individual events and three relays and earned All-CAA honors in the 100 breaststroke, 200 medley relay and 400 medley relay.

But he still narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA Championships, something no swimmer in Blue Hen history had accomplished. That’s when Sabev changed his mindset.

“That was when I realized my method of thinking wasn’t right,” he said. “I decided not to look at NCAAs as having to hit a time in order to make it. What I focused on were the variables I could actually change. So I started stretching more, putting more effort in, not missing practices. I started focusing on getting the little details right, and then it kind of worked out perfectly.”

Breaking through

Sabev competed in the World Aquatics Championships in Doha, Qatar, in February but wasn’t pleased with his performance. He came back to Newark and had two weeks to prepare for the conference meet.

“I had a meeting with Pablo, and he said to let the team carry me,” Sabev said. “And that’s exactly what I did. I literally went in with zero expectations. I knew I had to put in the work. In Qatar, I didn’t show it, so I took that as another opportunity. I stepped up, and it was one of the best meets I’ve had.”

Sabev won the 200 breaststroke and finished second in the 100 breaststroke at the championship but didn’t know at the time he had qualified for the NCAAs. It took a couple weeks for the NCAA to release its final list of qualifiers; at that point, Sabev knew what he had accomplished.

“I was really happy,” he said. “The NCAAs are a big deal.”

Despite the increased level of competition at the NCAA Championships, Sabev held his own against the top swimmers in the country, finishing 21st in the 100 breaststroke and 40th in the 200 breaststroke.

“I didn’t realize it until I went there … that meet is really fast,” he said. “Most of the people that I raced there, I also raced at the World Championships. People are just flying, breaking records. It was a great experience. I really enjoyed it.”

Elevating the program

While Sabev was the first Blue Hen to compete at the national meet, he doesn’t think it will be long before he has company. Sabev has helped raise the bar for the Blue Hen swimming program, which had never finished as high as second place in the CAA meet prior to Sabev’s arrival but has now done so in each of the last three years.

“It’s not easy to do something for the first time, because nobody believes until you make it,” he said. “And then once you make it, you establish that belief. Now we’ve got other swimmers who are getting closer to NCAAs. So I’m glad that it’s me, but I’m just glad that it happened in general. Because now it opens the door for future swimmers here; they know that it’s possible. They know we put in the work, and the results show.”

Marmelejo, the head coach, echoed Sabev’s sentiments.

“Toni has brought a new dimension to our program,” he said. “His talent combined with his personality makes him very unique. He has allowed us to show the world how much we can accomplish here at Delaware and that we have all the resources to succeed. He has been able to take advantage of our training, academic and performance resources to reach the highest levels of our sport while elevating our whole program and department.”

A financial future

Sabev, an excellent student who has been named to the CAA Academic Honor Roll during all three years, began his time at UD as a finance major and then added MIS as a second major halfway through his first year.

“I started with just finance, which I enjoyed. I understood how the financial world works,” he said. “But then I took an MIS class, which was Excel, and then I took R, which is a programming language. And I said, ‘Wow, I really enjoy doing those things. Why don’t I just combine both of them?’ I just knew that I really enjoyed what I was doing, and I had the opportunity to attend those great classes.”

Sabev said he was fortunate to make the right major choices early in his college career.

“My first finance class, Fundamentals of Finance, opened my eyes about how money circulates and how you evaluate stocks and bonds. It was just a game-changer for me,” he said. “I’m now taking Finance 314, which is basically a full statistical analysis in the financial world. I started researching stocks and cryptocurrencies, following prices, running regressions on returns and so forth. I’m really enjoying it.”

Sabev, who is set to graduate in spring 2025, hopes to turn professional in swimming but also sees a future in the financial field down the road.

“I’ve been thinking about [becoming a] data analyst or quantitative analyst, something related to math or making an understanding of historical data. But it’s not going to be just my job. I feel like I will apply a lot of knowledge to personal portfolio investments, and eventually want to start my own business,” he said.

Based on the results so far, he appears well on his way to continue being successful in and out of the pool.

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