An American student inspired to take up swimming after hearing about relatives who drowned in her native Haiti is making a big splash in the Olympic community.
Naomy Grand’Pierre, 19, who just completed her freshman year at the University of Chicago, is the first female swimmer to compete for Haiti in the Olympics.
But the road to the games has been anything but easy for Naomy. In fact, she did not even begin swimming until she was 10 years old, after a number of her mother’s cousins drowned back in Haiti. After the tragedies, her mom took action.
“She didn’t want to risk anything like that happening to us, so she enrolled me and all of my siblings in swim classes,” Naomy said.
“Learning to swim so much later in life than most Olympians definitely had some disadvantages,” she continued. “I know that my siblings for example will be so much faster than me, because they were so young when they started. It just means that I have to work harder than everyone else.”
Naomy’s parents were both born in Haiti, but after attending college in Montreal, they decided to move to the U.S., and Naomy and her four siblings were raised in Atlanta, Georgia.
Despite being born in the U.S., Naomy has decided to represent Haiti in the Olympics.
“Growing up, my house was like a mini-Haiti, even though we lived in America,” she said. “We spoke French, we ate Haitian food, it was always Haiti first in our family and America second. When it came time to think about the Olympics I felt connected to Haiti and wanted to represent the country.”
In her sophomore year of high school Naomy competed in an Olympic training program and continued to swim throughout high school—where she overcame two shin injuries—and for the University of Chicago’s team.
Training for the Olympics as a student athlete was also very challenging. The University of Chicago has an extremely rigorous academic curriculum and much is asked of her.
“There were a lot of very lonely days. I would have to eat lunch by myself and walk to classes by myself. I also had to sacrifice a lot of time with my friends for school and swimming,” said Naomy.
Despite the difficulties, she persevered as both an athlete and student.
“There’s this thing that swimmers know about called croggle, which is when you cry in your goggles, and I definitely had a lot of croggle moments, but those situations made me stronger.”
In addition, as the first Haitian woman competing for the Olympics, Naomy had to face problems that come along with blazing her own trail.
“There’s also no one I can really ask questions to or look up to as a model for what I should be doing, or really any specific guidelines to follow. In America, young girls who want to be swimmers have so many female Olympians to look up to, but for Haiti, I’m the first,” said Naomy.
Naomy wants to use her position as the first female swimmer as a platform to bring a positive light to Haiti and encourage young women in the poverty-ravaged country to take up swimming.
She hopes that one day Haiti will have enough swimmers to compete for the Olympics with their own relay team.
With the 2016 Olympics beginning this week in Rio, Naomy is understandably jittery, but ready to tear it up in the pool.
“I’m nervous for the process, but I’m going to stay as relaxed as possible, and I’m going to focus on what I can control, I just have to trust in my training” she said.
Regardless of her performance, Naomy hopes to make an impact for swimmers in Rio and all over the world.
“I want to continue swimming for Haiti and building the team, no matter how I do this Olympics,” she said.