How do you launch an Olympic swimming team in a country that has just one public pool for a population of more than ten million people?
That was the challenge facing 19-year-old swimmer Naomy Grand’Pierre, a rising sophomore at the University of Chicago. Though she was born in Montreal and raised in Atlanta, Grand’Pierre grew up immersed in the Haitian culture of her parents, Clio and Reginald Grand’Pierre. She learned French and Creole before she learned English, thrived on a diet of traditional Caribbean cuisine, and maintained dual American and Haitian citizenship.
But there was one tradition her family hoped she’d break. Grand’Pierre discovered swimming while she was still in grade school, after her parents registered her and her four younger siblings for lessons at the YMCA.
“My mom’s cousin actually drowned in Haiti,” she explains. “[My mother] didn’t want to be afraid every time we got in the water.”
Drowning is a leading cause of death in Haiti, according to the Haitian Federation of Aquatic Sports and Rescue. Despite it being an island nation, only 1 percent of its population knows how to swim.
And although the U.S. regularly fields an Olympic swimming team, the notion that a country facing these hurdles could similarly compete was mocked.
“At a very early age, people would always laugh when I said I wanted to go to the Olympics,” Grand’Pierre says. “It was kind of discouraging, so I kept it to myself. . . . Dreams are very fragile. You have to really protect them.”
And protect them she did. Friday marks the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, and as a testament to overcoming the odds, Haiti will have a swim team present for the first time in its history. Pioneering the way is Grand’Pierre.
Encouraged by her parents to expand her dream past her own ambitions, Grand’Pierre was instrumental in the emergence of Haiti’s team. While those treading in the lanes beside her may be focused on getting the gold, Grand’Pierre’s own drive comes from a more lofty goal: to grow the sport of swimming in Haiti.
“That’s what this whole journey has been,” she says. “It’s been my parents and I really working with people in Haiti to create a swim team and see if that can create a sport.”
Grand’Pierre was competing in the U.S. on a national level by age ten. By age 13 she’d begun to foster Olympic ambitions, attending USA Swimming’s Diversity Select Camp in Colorado Springs.
She also kept close ties with the country of her parents’ birth. In 2013, three years after a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck, the Grand’Pierre family returned to Haiti for the first time. Despite her initial fears—fueled, she says, by the media’s portrayal of the wreckage—Grand’Pierre found herself overwhelmed with pride.
“I remember going and just seeing how lovely it was,” she says, “and I thought, ‘Why is it that no one is aware of how beautiful and culturally rich Haiti is?’ It was home, and the people were my people.”
Grand’Pierre and her family dreamed of creating a Haitian national swimming team, combining her passion for swimming and her connection to the country. Meanwhile, Haiti’s aquatic federation had a similar goal. The group had recently become affiliated with the International Swimming Federation, or FINA, a governing body for the sport.
The aquatic federation’s president, Evenel Mervilus, had been tracking Grand’Pierre’s athletic accomplishments.
“I was very impressed to see how passionate she was about swimming, and how much she wanted to make a difference in Haiti,” Mervilus says. Noting her dedication and talent, Mervilus believed that Grand’Pierre would make a valuable addition to a Hatian national team.
Grand’Pierre was also recruited to swim for the University of Chicago, where she made plans to study psychology. With morning practices, weightlifting sessions, and extra training in between classes, she found it challenging to balance her swimming with her rigorous course load.
Yet Grand’Pierre kept her sights on her goal, and in May, she reaped the rewards of her efforts at the Olympic prequalifying matches in Romania and the Bahamas. Although she wouldn’t have qualified for the U.S. team, she easily established herself as the fastest swimmer for Haiti—her shortest 50-meter freestyle time was 27.35 seconds. Still, her times were too slow for the 26-second cutoff mark set by FINA. Her dreams seemed dashed.
But on July 5, Grand’Pierre received a phone call from her mother, who had joined Mervilus’s team as the aquatic society’s director of public relations. FINA wanted her to compete, her mother told her, and would provide her with a three-month scholarship to train with other Olympians at the Spire Institute in Geneva, Ohio.
“It was one of most relieving moments ever,” Grand’Pierre recalls. “Before, I was swimming just to swim. But now I could see how that faith we put into something uncertain really turned this dream we had into reality.”
Though Grand’Pierre had only a month after school ended to prepare for Rio, she found the process comparatively manageable, training between 8 AM and 6 PM daily alongside 25-year-old Frantz Mike Itelord Dorsainvil, Haiti’s male competitor. Grand’Pierre says she’s lucky if she has time to squeeze in a nap or FaceTime with her family.
“On the weekends my teammates and I try and do things that are normal, like go downtown to Cleveland,” she says.
On August 12, Grand’Pierre will swim in the 50-meter freestyle event in Rio, alongside Simone Manuel and Abbey Weitzel from the United States, the Campbell sisters from Australia, and other medal hopefuls.
Entering the water, Grand’Pierre hopes to use what she’s learned from her Olympic experience—including advice she received from world-record holder Michael Phelps—to serve as a positive role model for other Haitians and make the process easier for other Olympic hopefuls.
“It is a lot of pressure, especially since all of it’s so new,” she says. “When I perform in the water I’m not just Naomy anymore. My image is representative of what people see my country as, and I want to use this platform to elevate Haiti.”