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A star in many rights

What's in a name?

Quite a lot, actually, if you were named for the stars, grew up in a faraway land enamored of the Stars and Stripes, then later became one of your country's greatest stars, only to be drawn, finally, to the United States, in part, by the northern lights of Alaska, where your path leads to your calling as a youth swim coach, greeted daily by the twinkling eyes of splashing novices and the starry-eyed ambitions of the accomplished.

In the Turkish language, suha means star.

Suha Tokman wears it well.

In Turkey, says the man who some 48 years earlier received the moniker from his grandmother, names are regular words. They mean something. If you say, 'Hey, there are a lot of stars out,' you would say, 'Hey, there are a lot of suhas out.'

At Superior Athletic Club, where Tokman has directed the swimming program since 1994, he means something, too.

That is evidenced by the fact that, although he's not a high school coach, most all of the local swimmers who competed in the state championships this past weekend are year-round students of his.

Among them is Tolga Tokman, Suha's son and a freshman at North Medford High.

In the grand scheme of things, Tolga ' which means helmet ' will follow in his father's footsteps, someday representing Turkey in the Olympics, which his dad did more than 30 years ago at the infamous 1972 Munich Games.

Tolga Tokman competed in Turkey's national age-group championships the past two years and holds the 12-year-old age-group record in the 1,500-meter freestyle.

He bypassed the championships this year because they conflicted with the high school season.

Tolga will go back, however. He and his mother, Mukaddes (holy), visit family in Istanbul for most of each summer, and Suha joins them for a month or so.

Suha Tokman tries not to get ahead of himself when mulling his son's prospects of representing the homeland in the Olympics, but he does allow, That would be my dream come true.

It would not be the first dream to come to fruition in his colorful life.

The Early Years

Suha Tokman wonders aloud if, in a previous life, he lived in the United States. Growing up in Istanbul, a city now of about 9&

189; million in the northwest corner of Turkey, he was taken by the American way.

He had comics and books, primarily about the Old West and translated so he could read them. Silent film hero Tom Mix was a favorite subject. In his room, a large American flag hung over his bed. It came down only briefly when his 101-year-old grandmother, taking his bed while visiting, was awakened in the middle of the night.

She saw the image of the flag and it scared her, says Tokman. I had the biggest fight with my parents over that.

Tokman began swimming at age 8, after his father, Halim (above), became wary of Suha's fraternization with gypsies, who would rent horses to him to ride in a nearby field.

Halim, formerly a naval officer who married and became a clothing consultant, took his son to the fabled sports club, Galatasaray Spor Kulubu, to get his feet wet as a swimmer. The family was far from wealthy, and it was understood Suha would have to do well to earn cheaper dues.

He had three months to prove himself. When he didn't, his swimming ended.

Fate intervened several months later as Suha happened by the club after a trip to the beach. He heard cheers. A meet was in progress. He went in for a look.

The coach said, 'Do the 50 backstroke for us,' he recalls. There weren't enough swimmers and he didn't want to lose any points. I did the 50 backstroke and beat everybody. As of that day, the club called me back at the very cheap dues.

He would blossom into one of the club's best until a ferry accident sidelined him.

That, too, seems a fateful experience.

Following a meet on the Princess Islands, he was late to catch the last ferry home and leapt as it pulled away. He landed on the deck, roughly 30 feet below, he says, without apparent incident. However, the next morning, he could not move his left side. The right side of his brain had been so severely jarred that part of it stopped functioning. He was in traction for three weeks and out of the pool for much of the next year.

During that time, he took to coaching.

The club was like my home, he says. When I started coaching I loved it so much. I said that's it, I'll never quit coaching. I love my coaching.

He remembers returning from the beach and stopping for the cheers.

Again, he can't help but wonder, What would I be if I didn't go by the club that day? Would I not even come to the U.S.? I came here to improve my coaching abilities.

Yet, he wasn't finished with his swimming abilities.

Olympic Dreams

Tokman blossomed in the 200 backstroke. Why, he doesn't know. Others at Galatasaray could beat him in the 100 but couldn't touch him in the longer race.

He does know that he swam fast out of necessity, out of fear of losing.

When he returned to the pool after the concussion, he was so thirsty for swimming he qualified for his first national team. Of the club's roughly 600 swimmers, the top two in each event made the team. The carrot at the end of the stick? No dues and free lunch at the club.

I had this great thing in my head that I couldn't be lowered from the group, says Tokman. There were kids who may have been better than me, but they didn't have that drive. It was like a whip for me. Some were wealthy and didn't care as much.

He made the prestigious senior group for the first time at age 14. He would have 52 other occasions to represent Turkey on its national team, his best years coming from 1970-72.

When he qualified for the Olympics at an outdoor, 50-meter pool, he didn't want his parents to spend the money to go watch. They did anyway, without his knowledge, watching from a nearby hillside as their son won the 200 back and eclipsed the qualifying time of 2:12.00 with a 2:11.72 clocking.

I had to make that time, he says. I was very relieved.

Relief didn't last long.

The Turkish Sports Ministry didn't have enough funds to send all of the team members to the Olympics. Two had to be left behind. Tokman had barely made his qualifying time and, at 17, was the youngest member of the swim team. He and another boy were to be cut.

But coach Yilmaz Ozuak orchestrated a fund-raising effort for the other boy, then included Tokman in his coaching budget.

It was a little scary to us, but it was handled nicely, says Tokman. A lot of people supported us, and that meant more to us.

The Munich Games

It was five hours of goose bumps, says Tokman of the opening ceremonies in late August of 1972.

He was fortunate. He stood in the third row of his country's delegation, behind some really short wrestlers.

These were the largest Games to date, with record numbers of events (195), athletes (7,173) and countries (121).

Yet, for all the grandeur, they are known for carnage.

With six days left, on the morning of Sept. 5, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village, killed two members of the Israeli team and took nine more hostage. In an ensuing battle, all nine Israeli hostages were killed, as were five of the terrorists and one policeman.

The Olympic Village was gigantic, says Tokman. Like many athletes, he didn't know what was happening until he saw it on television that morning.

As an afterthought, he says, I never had TV until I went to the Olympics.

You could tell something huge was going on. Everyone was talking and they took us out of the place. The first word we got was the Olympics are over. You would see other athletes just going nuts, crying all over the place.

Until then, the Olympic Village scene was akin to a bunch of ants scurrying around, or a circus, with gymnasts doing routines here, weight lifters giving demonstrations there.

Then, says Tokman, it was like someone stepped on an ant farm. What is this? It had never been heard of or done before. These Games were a symbol of friendship and peace. Why do this?

After a 34-hour pause in the Games, during which a memorial service was held in the main stadium, sports continued.

A swimmer did make the biggest splash among the athletes, but it was American Mark Spitz, not Suha Tokman.

I was in the same tank with him warming up and working out, says Tokman.

That was as close as he got to greatness. Tokman placed 33 out of 48 competitors. He swam a personal-best 2:10.84.

Spitz won a record seven gold medals and held the spotlight the longest. Also, the U.S. basketball team lost in controversial manner for the first time in Olympic history, 51-50 to Russia, and tiny gymnast Olga Korbut burst onto the world stage.

Tokman's mementos from this historic event are few. He has a team pin, flag, T-shirt, warm-up suit and a U.S. pin that he traded for with American star Shirley Babashoff.

Some, including the team blazer and an Olympic bag stuffed with his Old West books, were at his parents' house in Istanbul, but they were lost in the 1999 Izmit earthquake.

The books didn't make it here, but he did.

Coming to America

Fittingly, Tokman followed the stars to America. He found a college catalog at a teacher friend's house and thumbed through it. It was for Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska. His friend wanted to study the northern lights. Tokman wanted to go to America.

He sold his 1955 Pontiac, all of his furniture and other belongings he could spare and made his way in August of 1979.

Tokman knew a half-dozen words of English ' but he was going to a place where many Native Alaskans learned the language.

It wasn't long before he took over operation of the pool, began coaching and was made a faculty member.

In 1981, he and Mukaddes, herself a standout swimmer in her day, married.

They lived in Sitka until December of 1994, and one of Tokman's students during that time was Adam Foley, whose father, Neil, is now the Ashland High coach. The Foleys moved here, and when a swimming director position opened at Superior Athletic Club, Neil put in a good word for Tokman.

A Superior Move

Tokman has earned numerous coach-of-the-year awards, including at the national level.

He's been teaching in the sport forever, says Arron Nelson, an Ashland swimmer who placed third in the state 50-yard freestyle Saturday. He still goes to clinics and keeps up to date on everything. He knows his game. He always knows what works and what doesn't.

Tokman's feeling for his swimmers and his craft are genuine. He's been teaching 34 years and can't wait each day for 4 o'clock to roll around and the pool to start filling up with his 100-plus students.

Seeing one of my little 6-year-olds learning to do the breast kick gives me one million times more pride than swimming in the Olympics, he says. I don't exaggerate. It has been a very long time.

The twinkling eyes of youth are his stars now.

Suha Tokman, left, sits in his office at Superior Athletic Club with his son Tolga. Tokman has directed the swimming program at the club since 1994. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell