07/27/2012 09:52 EDT | Updated 09/26/2012 05:12 EDT

After Dale Oen's passing, Italy's Fabio Scozzoli is a contender for breaststroke gold

LONDON - When Fabio Scozzoli was a kid, he dreamed of becoming a tractor driver. Still a country boy at heart, his dream now is an Olympic medal.

With friend and rival Alex Dale Oen of Norway having died from cardiac arrest in April, there's no reason to believe the Italian swimmer can't achieve his goal.

Scozzoli won silver behind Dale Oen in the 100-meter breaststroke at last year's world championships in Shanghai, with Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa taking bronze.

The men's 100 breaststroke heats will open the swimming program Saturday morning and the final is scheduled for Sunday night.

Two-time defending Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima and Japanese teammate Ryo Tateishi will also be threats, as will Felipe Franca da Silva of Brazil and Brendan Hansen of the United States.

"There are a lot of rivals," Scozzoli said. "I think Kitajima is the man to beat."

This is the first Olympics for the 23-year-old Scozzoli, and his rise to the elite level has been all the more remarkable considering that he trains most of the year in a 25-meter pool.

As a member of Italy's national team, Scozzoli could easily join his teammates at Olympic training centres with 50-meter pools in Verona or Rome. But he prefers to train near his home in the small town of Imola, which is known for formerly hosting Formula One's San Marino Grand Prix.

"He was born in the countryside and that's where his heart is," Scozzoli's Hungarian coach Tamas Gyertyanffy said. "He doesn't like leaving there. Others in his position would be happy to move somewhere else to achieve their goal. ... It's a problem."

The only 50-meter pool in Imola is outdoors.

"We can train seriously starting in June," Gyertyanffy said. "Fortunately, the important races are usually in July and August."

Scozzoli was raised near Forli, an even smaller town outside Imola.

"I grew up in the countryside, not with animals though," Scozzoli said. "My mom is a dentist and my father has some land and grows peaches. But for three or four years now I've been in Imola. It's a fairly small town and I like it."

He doesn't seem bothered by the pool situation in Imola.

"In the past seasons this has always worked," Scozzoli said. "Once I get outside, that's when I start to improve, and by July I'm at my best. ... I don't like big cities. I like being at home."

Scozzoli won gold in the 50 breast — a non-Olympic event — and bronze in the 100 at the 2010 European Championships in Budapest for the first major medals of his career.

At this year's Euros in Debrecen, Hungary, he took gold in the 100 and silver in the 50.

After his first gold, Scozzoli got a tattoo on his wrist that says "Budapest 2010."

"It was my first medal, my first win, and it changed my life," he said. "You never forget your first win."

Depending on how Scozzoli fares in London, another tattoo may be in order — and a low-key celebration in the countryside.