By Mary Abowd | Photos by Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports Images

Second-year Naomy Grand’Pierre made history as the first female swimmer to compete at the Olympics for Haiti. Seemingly overnight, she became a sensation in the small Caribbean nation where her parents were born and grew up.

“I’m getting emails from parents in Haiti saying, ‘My kids want to learn how to swim; you’ve inspired them,’” says Grand’Pierre, a dual Haitian-U.S. citizen who graced the cover of the country’s biggest newspaper and gave an interview in Creole on Haitian national radio. “A cousin in Haiti called to say, ‘You’re the only thing people here are talking about.’”

UChicago swimmer Naomy Grand'Pierre with Haitian Olympians
Naomy Grand'Pierre (center) and members of the Haitian Olympic team attend a welcoming ceremony at the Athletes' Village. (Photo by Manan Vatsyaya/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s fame that Grand’Pierre never expected, she says, particularly because less than a year ago, she wasn’t sure she wanted to compete at all. “People in my life kind of pushed me,” she says. “My dad asked me, ‘Is there some physical reason why you can’t?’she recalls with a laugh. And when her UChicago friends heard swimming for Haiti was a possibility, they wouldn’t let it go. “They told me, ‘You have to do this,’” she says.

The encouragement made all the difference at the Olympics, Grand’Pierre says. Swimming in the 50-meter free, she finished in 27.46 seconds—not quite as fast as she hoped, but enough to place second in her heat. Now she’s setting her sights on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, hoping to compete internationally while juggling a full UChicago course load.

UChicago swimmer Naomy Grand'Pierre shares her Olympic scrapbook while looking back at the 2016 Games in Rio. Video Link: (Photos courtesy of Naomy Grand'Pierre, video by UChicago Creative)

The experience in Rio cemented an even bigger goal—Grand’Pierre says she came away from the Olympics ready to dedicate herself to promoting swimming in Haiti, where only 1 percent of the population knows how to swim, according to the Haitian Swimming Federation. “My mom encouraged me to learn how to swim as a precaution, as a life skill,” she says. “That’s where it all starts.”

In addition to encouraging children to learn to swim, she’d like to improve the country’s swimming infrastructure. At present, she says, Haiti’s only Olympic-length, 50-meter pool is in disrepair. Her Olympic teammate Frantz Dorsainville—the only other swimmer from Haiti—had to train in the country’s only existing pool, which is 18 meters long. “If we want other Haitian athletes to compete at the level of the Olympics, a 50-meter pool is something they have to have,” Grand’Pierre says.

The drive to help Haiti may have begun before she attended the Olympics, but that impulse was solidified at the games. In the Olympic Village, Grand’Pierre bonded with the nine other members of the Haitian Olympic team, marching in traditional dress with them in the opening ceremonies, living together in the dorms, and sharing daily meals in the cafeteria (where she spotted swimmer Michael Phelps and tennis star Serena Williams, among others).

But perhaps she felt most Haitian when she engaged in the longtime Olympic tradition of “trading pins”—in which Olympians share lapel pins signifying their country—as a way to meet one another and gather souvenirs of the people and countries they’ve encountered. One of the highlights for Grand’Pierre was trading pins with U.S. gold medalists Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles. “They were super sweet,” she says of the U.S. gymnasts. “They are among only five or six American athletes that have Haitian pins.”

Plans are now underway for the Haitian team—representing wrestling, weight lifting, and even tae kwon do—to assemble in Haiti for some public outreach, where Grand’Pierre will make her first formal pitch to promote her sport. By 2020, she hopes to have other Haitians—including other female swimmers—joining her on the team.

Grand’Pierre says it’s all a bit unreal the way things have come together—to embark on another Olympic bid and to be actively helping her parents’ homeland. “It’s like looking at a finished puzzle,” she says. “Before, all the pieces were scattered around, and I was looking from one piece to another and not seeing the whole picture.

“Looking back, everything fits together. Everything happened for a reason.”

Originally published on August 31, 2016.