University of Chicago and Haitian women's swimmer Naomy Grand'Pierre is busy preparing for Rio de Janeiro, but her goals extend well beyond the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
She is currently training at SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio as part of a three-month scholarship from Fédération internationale de Natation (FINA), the international governing body of swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swim, and open water swimming. She will return briefly to her hometown of Atlanta before heading to Rio on Aug. 2, becoming the first female swimmer to represent Haiti in Olympic history.
"This has been a crazy and amazing journey," said Grand'Pierre, who began a journal 100 days before Rio at the suggestion of her mother even before she qualified for the Olympic Games. "It is incredible to look back at everything that has happened so far, especially the craziness of the spring semester."
Naomy Grand'Pierre at SPIRE Institute (Photo by Andrew Farrell)
Naturally, her immediate focus is on her performance in the 50-yard freestyle in Rio, but her vision is to change the culture of swimming in Haiti. Born in Montreal and raised in Atlanta, Grand'Pierre has dual citizenship with Haiti, where both her parents were born. "Although Haiti is an island, only one percent of Haitians know how to swim," Grand'Pierre remarked. "My parents first brought up the possibility of a Haitian swim team and I kind of laughed it off. Then the second time they mentioned it, I started to take it seriously."
THE EARLY DAYS AND HIGH SCHOOL
Grand'Pierre's mother enrolled her in swimming lessons after one of her cousins drowned. "From that point on, my mother made clear that it was necessary for me to learn how to swim," she commented. "It started out for safety reasons, but it became a way of life in our family. We were always at the pool."
Grand'Pierre is the oldest of five children and all of her siblings are swimmers as well. Her younger brother and youngest sister have already won state championships. Her oldest sibling, who is entering her senior year in high school this fall, plans to swim in college also.
"Starting early on, it became a dream of mine to compete in the Olympics," she recalled. She started competing for USA Swimming at age 10 and continued competitive swimming and pursuing that dream into high school. "It was a very private dream that I had not shared with people. My parents knew, but it wasn't something I talked about." By the time she was 13, she was selected to USA Swimming's Diversity Select Camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
"I would never want to go back to that high school schedule, but it definitely prepared me for college because I had to become skilled at time management," she stated. Her typical high school day included practice from 6-9 p.m. each weekday after a full day of classes. "I typically wouldn't even eat dinner until 9:30 so homework didn't even begin until 10:15." Tuesday and Thursday mornings were particularly challenging with morning practices at 5:45 in addition to the regular daily schedule.
Grand'Pierre not only excelled at swimming, but also in track at Whitefield Academy. She captured the Class 1A Private 1,600-meter title in 5:05.70 at the 2013 Georgia High School Association State Championships.
Unfortunately, she suffered an injury and, in her words, "plateaued" in swimming, as far as qualifying for the Olympics. The dream was on hold... at least until she started to take seriously her parents' suggestion about swimming for Haiti.
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
Grand'Pierre extensively searched for colleges, focusing on the types of cities where she wanted to be. "I knew I wanted to go away from home and was thinking California, but my parents told me that was too far away from home," she remembered.
The National Honor Society recipient, who earned multiple academic scholarships, applied to 10 universities and was drawn to Chicago. "I looked at all the rankings and knew that athletically Chicago was ranked high and academically was ranked extremely high," Grand'Pierre stated. "Once they started to recruit me, I knew it was the perfect fit for me. It was my top choice so when I got in there, I withdrew the other nine applications.
Her career goal is to work in marketing and advertising, which has already been given a boost by her participation in UChicago Careers in Business (UCIB), including the chance to shadow employees at various companies. She is taking psychology courses and in her shadowing experiences thus far, has learned the critical correlation between psychology and success in marketing.
The unique quarter system at Chicago has benefited Grand'Pierre as she has not had to miss any classes for training. She could have begun training at SPIRE as early as May but was able to finish out the semester and then go to SPIRE on June 14. Because classes do not resume until Sept. 26, she is able to complete her three-month scholarship at SPIRE on Sept. 14 and have time to return to Atlanta before going back to campus.
A normal week during the season includes practices each weekday from 3-5:30 p.m. in addition to morning practices (6-8) on Mondays and Thursdays and lifting three times a week.
Things were anything but normal after the swimming season ended in March. "Now I was training by myself and no days were the same," she said. Training sessions were set up around her class schedule with either Head Coach Jason Weber or Assistant Coach Nick Daly in addition to lifting three times a week.
"In terms of her spring training, I know it was a very difficult time for her." Weber said. "She really had nobody to train with except for one of her male freshman teammates who was training briefly with her to compete at British Olympic Trials in mid-April. After that she had no other swimmers who could push or motivate her. That all had to come from within herself. There was also some uncertainty of her status and what she had to do to be eligible and qualify for Rio so I’m sure there were some days she was asking herself what she was really swimming for. Her academic schedule was a little crazy too and we were not able to find much time for her to train long course between her classes and all the other programming going on in the pool. We also changed her training a couple times in the span of just a few months due to her changes in eligibility and the meets we had to focus her for."
"Training by yourself is borderline miserable for most and she remained motivated and hardworking in April, May, and June while swimming with us," Daly said. "I can’t wait for her to be back next year in the context of our entire team as I know that her experiences this summer in Rio will positively affect everyone in our program."
"It was really rough balancing the training schedule and a full course load at such a prestigious university," Grand'Pierre stated. One of the greatest challenges was practicing on a short course (25 yards) pool when all Olympic events are held in a long course (50 meters) pool. "On Wednesdays and Fridays, we were able to go in and change the pool to a long course," she said. "We changed it, I swam for two hours, and then we had to change it back."
"Long course swimming is so different from short course swimming," she commented. "Even how you swim the strokes changes. It requires a lot of endurance."
"It takes a very special individual to overcome those challenges and Naomy didn’t let it get to her at all," Weber added. "She continued to stay positive, worked hard and, in the end, she got a couple best times and was able to qualify."
"I am thrilled for Naomy and incredibly proud of her," said Chicago Director of Athletics Erin McDermott. "How inspiring for her to achieve this through relentless commitment, determination, and resiliency. Haiti and the United States could not ask for a better role model and representative. All Maroons join all Haitians in celebrating this extraordinary young woman. Simply stated, as Naomy said when she qualified at 13 for a select camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, ‘Wow, this is cool!’"
One of the accomplishments Grand'Pierre is most proud of is that, "in spite of my crazy training schedule, my spring quarter grades were better than my winter quarter grades."
"It will be very strange going back in the fall after all of this," said Grand'Pierre, who is planning to live on campus again. "Everything has been so overwhelming with all of the training and media coverage. It should be a very interesting fall."
QUALIFYING FOR THE OLYMPICS
She swam in a meet in Romania in May and after classes ended in June, she trained briefly at SPIRE Institute before heading to the Bahamas with Nassau serving as the host of the Caribbean Island Swimming Championships from June 29-July 2. The event serves as one of the final qualifying meets for the Olympics and in this 21st edition of the championships, Haiti was represented for the first time. Grand'Pierre and Genevieve Duvivier were the women's competitors, while Fenel Lamour and Olympian Frantz Mike Itelord Dorsainvil were the men's swimmers.
Facebook post from the Haitian Sports Federation
She reached the finals of the 50-meter butterfly (finishing seventh in a personal-best time of 30.10) and swam a 50-meter split time of 27.72 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle. In her Olympic event, the 50-meter freestyle, Grand'Pierre qualified for the finals in 27.35 seconds and placed seventh with a mark of 27.67 seconds.
Under FINA’s universality rule, Grand’Pierre (and Dorsainvil) were eligible to be selected to compete in the Olympics. On July 5, a phone call from her mother confirmed that Grand'Pierre's lifelong dream was now a reality.
She returned to SPIRE and is training with three other Olympic swimmers under the tutelage of Thad Schultz, who has a wealth of collegiate and national club coaching experience. Grand'Pierre is training with three male swimmers, representing Fiji, Guyana, and Granada.
"We are very happy to have Naomy here at SPIRE," Schultz said. "She is a great representative of both her university and her country. I think she will do well in Rio. It is a fantastic opportunity for her to not only compete against the best in the world but also open doors for other Haitian swimmers."
Olympians Hannibal Gaskin (Guyana), Corey Ollivierre (Grenada), Grand'Pierre, Meli Malani (Fiji)
Her schedule is similar to that in college with one major exception: no classes. "I really like the schedule here and there is time built in to relax," she said. "That is not something I have had the chance to do much of lately."
Three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) she practices 8-10 a.m. and 3:30-5 p.m. with lifting from 1-2:30 p.m. On Tuesday and Thursday, she practices in the morning and is done for the day after lifting. There is one practice on the weekend, Saturday from 7-9 a.m. "It does seem like torture to have practice at 7 on Saturday," she joked. "I get a lot of 1-on-1 coaching with Thad and that has been great. I love being here and doing all my swimming over a long course."
THE NEW DREAM: ADVANCING SWIMMING IN HAITI
For Grand'Pierre and her family, a vision has emerged for what swimming can become in Haiti. "Honestly, my parents have already moved past Rio," she laughed.
Her parents raised her with a strong sense of the Haitian culture and she has been able to speak Creole and French since she began to talk. "My parents had the typical 'American Dream' in that they left Haiti without much and wanted to make a better life for themselves and eventually their children," Grand'Pierre said. "They met in college in Montreal, but my father couldn't stand the cold. They knew other Haitians who moved to Atlanta so that is where they settled."
One thing Grand'Pierre had not done up until a few years ago was visit Haiti. Making a family trip with five children is a challenge financially, but her parents believed it was very important. "I didn't want to go at all," she recalled. "None of us kids wanted to because of the all the negative images we had seen. This was only a couple years after the devastating earthquake of 2010."
The trip turned out to be a life-changer for Grand'Pierre. "It was the complete opposite of the images I had seen over and over," she said. "It was incredibly beautiful and the entire trip was fantastic. It made me so proud to be Haitian." She is planning to return to Haiti on her own just before returning to Chicago for the first quarter.
"My family really wants to expose Haiti to swimming," she said. "With USA Swimming, we have multiple role models to look to. In Haiti, that just isn't the case. Now with four Haitians being at the Caribbean Island Championships, they can see that swimming at a competitive level is realistic."
"The Federation (Fédération Haïtienne des Sports Aquatiques et de Sauvetage) was so supportive from the time we approached them about the idea of a Haitian national swimming team in November," she continued. "Once I had matured enough to sense the vision my parents had, I realized what this could do for Haiti. At the same time I wondered, 'Where do I even begin?'"
"I feel that she didn’t go through all this hard work and training alone for herself," Weber said. "Yes, of course going to the Olympics is the pinnacle achievement of a competitive swimmer, but I really feel like she kept working hard for her country. She wanted to make her country proud and be a source of inspiration and hope for all the Haitian female athletes to come after her."
"Naomy is incredibly poised and composed, especially for a rising sophomore," Daly said. "She is driven, of course, to succeed on a personal level, but ultimately wants a broader awareness for the sport. She is a student-athlete ambassador for USA Swimming and wants to help elevate swimming in a country (Haiti) where a large percent of the population cannot swim."
Grand'Pierre has set her sights on making a second Olympic appearance in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. "My dream is that there will be more swimmers from Haiti and possibly even a relay team in Tokyo."
What began as a dream she shared with almost no one has evolved into a mission for an entire country.