By Mary Abowd | Photos by Jean Lachat | Video by UChicago Creative

First-year varsity swimmer Naomy Grand’Pierre steps to the edge of the pool at the Ratner Athletics Center. Lean and muscular in a navy blue swimsuit, she twists her curly dark hair into a bun, secures her swim cap and goggles, then dives like a torpedo into the water.

Editor’s note: As of July 5, Naomy Grand’Pierre has officially qualified to represent Haiti in the 2016 Summer Olympics

The collegiate swim season ended long ago, but Grand’Pierre is training harder than ever. In December, she was invited to represent Haiti at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (she holds dual Haitian-American citizenship). If she can swim fast enough at an international competition in the Bahamas later this week, she will qualify—making her the first female swimmer to represent Haiti at the Olympic Games.

On this May morning at Ratner, the pool lanes have been reconfigured to Olympic length, so that Grand’Pierre can practice shaving a second off her time in her main event, the 50-meter freestyle. She’s got to clock at roughly 26 seconds, and for now, her every waking moment is dedicated to making that happen.

“I’m going from college athlete to international athlete with aspirations of going to the Olympics,” she says. “That requires a big jump in terms of training.”

Since March, Grand’Pierre has worked with her UChicago coaches, balancing a 20-hour-per-week swim and weightlifting routine with a full load of academic classes. She’s passed up more than a few nights out with friends to finish homework and get to bed on time.

Grand’Pierre doesn’t pretend the intensity has been easy. “There’s a funny word called ‘croggle,’” she says. “It means ‘crying in your goggles.’ I’ve had plenty of ‘croggle’ practices.”

‘I’m fast enough’

Grand’Pierre’s dedication is all the more admirable because of the way she has persevered, says head swimming coach Jason Weber, who, along with assistant coach Nick Daly, created her training routine in the run-up to the Olympics.

“While it’s exciting for Naomy to chase her Olympic dreams, it takes a very special and extremely motivated individual to do it alone,” Weber says. “She never had her teammates around her to feed off or push her; that all had to come from within. She’s been an inspiration to the entire team and an excellent leader by example.”

The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Grand’Pierre grew up in Atlanta, the eldest of five children. She started swimming at age 10, when her parents enrolled their children in lessons after a cousin drowned. “My mom took me to a pool party and saw me struggling in the deep end,” Grand’Pierre recalls. “She remembered my cousin and resolved to make sure all five of us learned to swim.” 

First-year varsity swimmer Naomy Grand’Pierre at the Ratner Athletics Center pool at the University of Chicago.

Grand’Pierre soon graduated from YMCA swim classes to competitive citywide swim team. “I kept progressing, getting faster and faster,” she says. (Her siblings began to swim competitively, too, and now two are state champions.) At 13, she was chosen to attend USA Swimming’s Diversity Select Camp, an intensive summer training program for swimmers of diverse backgrounds held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool!’ Grand’Pierre recalls. “‘I’m fast enough to make this camp.’ I still think of that place as a utopia.”

Role model for Haitian swimmers

The experience also piqued her interest in issues of diversity in swimming. For the past two years, Grand’Pierre has served on USA Swimming’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, a national initiative to promote better representation of minorities, including transgender athletes, in the sport.

“We’re trying to change the face of swimming,” she says. “We want everybody to know that swimming is something all people can have access to. It’s for anybody of any race and gender.”

Similarly, Grand’Pierre wants to help promote swimming in Haiti. “There are no role models for Haitians to look up to when it comes to swimming,” she says. “I’d like to be involved in helping more Haitians learn how to swim and compete at the professional level.”

For now, though, Grand’Pierre is staying focused on swimming faster and perfecting her technique. After final exams, she headed to an Olympic training center in Ohio, where she spent several 40-hour weeks preparing to compete in the Bahamas—and then, hopefully, Brazil.

“In practice, I’m constantly thinking, constantly correcting myself and hyper-focused on what it is I need to do,” says Grand’Pierre, who would like to major in psychology. “Am I moving my arms faster; am I kicking faster; am I holding my breath, even though I want to breathe?”

Once she takes her mark at the next competition, “there is no more thought involved,” she adds. “It’s about not letting your mental attitude stop you from what you’re physically capable of doing.” 

Originally published on June 28, 2016.