Naomy Grand’Pierre, ’19, aims to represent Haiti at the Rio de Janeiro games.
At the end of May, when most other undergraduates at the University of Chicago were preparing for finals, first-year Naomy Grand’Pierre hopped on a flight to Romania. It was her first time in Europe, and she took a couple of days to hang out in the malls of downtown Bucharest.
The rest of her time was spent in a pool, trying to qualify for this summer’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro in the 50-meter freestyle as a member of the Haitian swim team.
And while she didn’t succeed there, she has her best, and last, chance this week in the Bahamas at the Caribbean Islands Swimming Championship, where she must finish in less than 26.17 seconds. Her fastest time, she says, is around a 27.6.
In a sport where races are often decided by tenths of a second—the gap separating the gold and silver medalists in the 2012 Olympics was 0.23 seconds—Grand’Pierre faces a daunting task.
Still, she’s hopeful, and training harder than ever. At the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio—used by swimmers from countries without their own Olympic training centers—she spends two hours in the pool every morning, followed by an hour and a half of weight lifting. Three times a week, she swims for another two hours in the afternoon.
“It’s obviously a really fast time, but if I continue training here I should be able to get pretty close,” she said.
Grand’Pierre’s Olympic hopes were born a couple of years ago, back in Haiti, when her mother returned home for a funeral. There, Clio Grand’Pierre met a swim club owner who told her: “I see online that your kids are pretty good. Why don’t you see what it would be like to have your daughter represent Haiti at the Olympics?”
The idea resonated with her. Clio and her husband, Reginald, had both left Haiti for university in Canada, eventually moving to the United States and settling near Atlanta, raising their five children with dual American and Haitian citizenship. “When you leave Haiti, sometimes you forget to look back,” she said. “But when the earthquake happened in 2010, it forced a lot of Haitians to turn back home and look where we came from.”
After speaking with the swim club owner, Clio did some research. Haiti had never had a female swimmer at the Olympics. (A male swimmer, Alain Sergile, competed in the 1996 Atlanta games.) Because she possesses dual citizenship, Naomy Grand’Pierre is eligible to swim for the island nation at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.
Initially the Grand’Pierre family thought Naomy’s status as the fastest Haitian woman in her event would allow her to compete. They later learned that she would have to meet a designated cutoff time of 26.17 to qualify.
She’s handled the setback well, according to her UChicago coach Jason Weber. “She just comes here and works well and stays really positive,” he says.
For the Grand’Pierre family, though, there’s a greater hope than just an Olympic berth. When she was 8, Naomy started swimming lessons after Clio’s fourteen-year-old cousin drowned at a summer camp in Boston. In Haiti, two of Clio’s younger cousins also drowned, one after jumping in to save the other. And while Naomy and her siblings became competitive swimmers, Clio noted that less than 1 percent of the population of Haiti knows how to properly swim, despite it being an island.
Clio hopes that with Naomy’s spot in the Olympics, the family will be able to raise swimming’s profile in Haiti, and hopefully save lives in the process. “My goal is to create awareness for the sport of swimming in Haiti,” said Clio. “If they see that it’s something cool to do, then we can work on raising funds to bring more pools, or start an exchange program with UChicago students. Those are the types of programs that I would like to see if we can establish.”
Naomy Grand’Pierre trains for a chance to represent Haiti at the 2016 Olympics.