By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In July 2005, Jan Daniec bid good-bye to his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and to his beloved dog, Norbi, and moved with his sister and parents from Poland to the United States.

He was a boy when he came to Mission Viejo, Calif. He was a young man when he stood inside a courthouse in Charlottesville last year, wearing a UVa tie with his light-blue dress shirt, and took an oath. On that day, March 16, 2012, Daniec became a U.S. citizen.

“That moment, it’s going to rank in the top three moments of my life,” Daniec recalled this week at UVa’s Aquatic & Fitness Center.

The AFC is where Daniec, a third-year economics major at the University, spends many of his waking hours. He’s one of the Cavaliers’ top swimmers, a standout in the 500, 1000 and 1650 freestyle. He’s also one of Virginia coach Mark Bernardino’s favorite swimmers.

“He’s an absolute pleasure,” Bernardino said. “He’s got one speed: It’s all out, all the time. He’s got a very positive attitude. His demeanor is very even, but very positive. I wish we had more athletes on his team that had his work ethic, that had his demeanor.

“He has a real love and passion for the sport. It’s pretty amazing to see. He takes nothing for granted. He’s kind of a throwback to a way America maybe was 30, 40, 50 years ago, where he’s convinced that the harder he works, the more positive he is, the more success he’s going to achieve.

“He blends two cultures really, really well, and he’s incredibly proud of his new status as an American citizen.”

Daniec, whose first name is pronounced Yon, was born in the town of Żywiec, in southern Poland. His mother was a physical therapist, his father a physical education teacher in Poland. They decided to move to America in part, Daniec said, because economic conditions were difficult in Poland, but also to boost his athletic career.

“The United States has the best swimming in the world,” he said.

The family settled in Orange County, Calif. How long the Daniecs — parents Robert and Sabina and children Jan and Magdalena — would stay was uncertain back in 2005.

“We had no idea what to expect,” recalled Jan, who turns 21 in July. “We didn’t know anybody here. We didn’t have a long-term plan, really. We always viewed the United States in a very good light and as the land of opportunity, as they say. So this was our shot at the American dream.”

His sister, who’s now 22, wanted to study music in the United States, and she realized her dream. She graduated from the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston and, based in Berkeley, Calif., now plays piano professionally.

Magdalena was not a competitive swimmer, but her brother showed immense promise in the sport. In California, the Mission Viejo Nadadores, a storied swimming club, quickly became the refuge of the Polish boy who was not yet fluent in English and struggled to understand his new classmates, who spoke at a dizzying speed.

“It’s really hard to make new friends,” Daniec said. “Any time I went to the pool it was a big relief that I could escape from school, because I didn’t really enjoy it, especially eighth grade.”

He was in the ninth grade when Fran Crippen joined the Mission Viejo club. Crippen, the ACC swimmer of the year in 2003 and ’04, had been an 11-time All-American for Bernardino at UVa and was one of the sport’s most charismatic figures. (Crippen died tragically on Oct. 23, 2010, while competing in a 10k open-water race near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.)

Daniec had never heard of UVa until he met Crippen. Once the Cavaliers contacted Daniec, however, his interest was piqued.

“I knew Fran was from UVa, so I wanted to check it out, because I really respected him,” said Daniec, whose teammates at Virginia in 2010-11 included Crippen’s sister Claire. “I mean, anybody that knows Fran knows he’s just an awesome person. He’s the man.”

When he visited UVa, Daniec recalled, he was struck by the closeness of the men’s team. “I also liked their approach to swimming,” he said. “I knew I was going to work hard if I’d come here.”

As a freshman, he helped the Cavaliers capture a fourth consecutive ACC men’s title and later competed in the 500 free and 1650 free at the NCAA championships. In 2011-12, Daniec was runner-up at the ACC meet in the 500 free, placed fourth in the 1650 free and 11th in the 400 individual medley.

In the team competition, the Wahoos finished first for the fifth straight year, but their victory was hard-earned. In fact, much of the season was a struggle for the UVa men, who on Jan. 28, 2012, lost 166-134 to North Carolina — only their second defeat in an ACC dual meet in more than a decade.

“Last year I think we forgot that just because we were successful in the past, it’s not going to come easy,” Daniec said. “Anything we do isn’t going to come easy. So we just gotta work for it. We have a really good first-year class that came in this year, and they got us off to a great start. So I think we’re at a good place.”

Bernardino agreed.

“This group carries a much more serious approach to training,” he said, “an appreciation for the opportunity that’s still in front of them to continue, at least into this season, as the ACC championship team. And I think collectively as a group they have been a much better group to work with on a day in, day out basis, relative to work ethic, relative to knowing that nothing will be handed to them and nothing is easy and that there’s no complacency.”

UVa hosts dual meets against ACC rivals UNC and Duke this weekend. In swimming and diving, the Virginia men meet Carolina at noon Saturday, and the women follow at 3 p.m. The divers from UVa and Duke compete at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Finally, at noon Sunday, Virginia’s swimmers take on Duke’s in dual meets at the AFC.

He knew little about ACC swimming when he arrived in Charlottesville, Daniec said, “but it’s a really cool thing, the rivalry we have with UNC, and I’m always looking forward to Carolina week. It’s by far my favorite swim meet of the season.”

Bernardino said: “Historically, as you look back over the last 20 years, the two prominent or pre-eminent programs in the ACC have been UVa and North Carolina. There’s a very strong rivalry, but the type of rivalry that makes both teams better. So this week carries a lot more energy, a lot more enthusiasm.”

Daniec, whose academic concentration is international economics, shares an apartment with teammates Jack Murfee, Parker Camp and Brad Phillips. He’s also close with Nick Montes de Oca, Taylor Grey and Nathan Vredeveld, who took photos of Daniec at the naturalization ceremony last March.

His experience as a swimmer at UVa, where his coaches are Bernardino, Chip Kline and Doak Finch, has “been awesome,” Daniec said. “My first year was really great. My transition from high school to college was pretty smooth, because of the fourth-year class that we had here my first year, with Matt McLean and Scot Robison.”

The process of becoming a U.S. citizen took him about six months once he submitted his paperwork, Daniec said. Neither his sister nor his parents have followed suit, though they may well do so eventually.

Daniec has been back to Poland only once since leaving in 2005 — for a swim meet two years ago — and he misses his relatives there, and his dog. He looks forward to visiting his native country again, Daniec said, “just to see how things have changed, just to see my family, but not to live.”

He’s happiest here.

“I love the U.S., and I think it’s the greatest country in the world, mostly because of the people here,” Daniec said. “I can say 90 percent of the people that I meet are good, friendly people. My club team coach, Bill Rose, really took me under his wing, and he really took care of me. Same goes with Mark, Chip and Doak at UVa. So I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to study here and swim.”

Most of all, he’s grateful for his parents and the sacrifices they’ve made for their children.

“I know it was a lot harder for older people like them to learn a new language than for me or my sister,” Daniec said. “And they just left everything behind, their jobs, their friends and families, just to give my sister and myself a better opportunity.”

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