CHICAGO – Every time Naomy Grand'Pierre enters the Myers-McLoraine Pool, there is one number on her mind – 26. It is specific and concrete. With each lap that she swims, 26 is the end goal.
There are no teammates on the pool deck, no competitors in the other lanes. With her college coaches directing the way, it's a singular pursuit of the number. If Grand'Pierre can clock 26 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle, she will head to Brazil in August for the 2016 Summer Olympics representing the country of Haiti.
Grand'Pierre's first year at the University of Chicago has drawn to a close. The Atlanta, Ga. resident experienced the grind of collegiate competition as a new member of the varsity swimming and diving team. The Maroons achieved elite status once again on the national stage, as the men's and women's teams both finished 14th at the 2016 NCAA Division III Championships. The season is now long over, but her laps and training continue.
The goal of competing in the Olympics always loomed in Grand'Pierre's mind growing up as an athlete. A conversation last year with her mother brought it back to the forefront. Along with her parents, Reginald and Clio, Naomy is a dual citizen of both the U.S. and Haiti. Clio suggested that they research what it would take to represent Haiti as an Olympic swimmer. They contacted the Haitian Swimming Federation to inquire about Haiti's plans for the approaching Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. One male swimmer was lined up to compete, but no female swimmers. The idea took root, and Naomy began the conversation with the HSF to determine what it would take for her to join the Haitian national team.
During her research, Grand'Pierre found that some of her past times would currently make her one of the elite Haitian swimmers. She later shared her Olympic ambitions with UChicago Head Swimming Coach Jason Weber in December 2015 when the varsity squads were on their winter training trip in Florida. As the season progressed, Grand'Pierre continued to train with the team and hone in on the necessary qualifications.
"In order to swim for Haiti, I had to prove that I would be the fastest registered Haitian swimmer," Grand'Pierre said. "I had to go under 28 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle in order to do so. The process was stressful and difficult. Around the world, there are plenty of long course meets; but here in the U.S., long course is only done in the summer. Luckily, during Olympic years, there are more opportunities to swim long course outside of the season and an opportunity came up for Sunday, March 20 in Greensboro, N.C. on the last day of NCAA [nationals].
"I had to swim a long course 50-meter freestyle in under 28 seconds after only training short course yards. The first time I trained long course before this event was that day during warm-ups. Luckily for me, my first race posted at 28.00 and I swam the 50-meter one more time and swam a 27.99, which proved that I would be the fastest candidate for the spot."
The time trial results in North Carolina produced a mix of confidence and surprise. In 2013, she recorded a 27.26 in the event, but only after months of strenuous long course training.
"Although I knew going under a 28 was realistic for me, I was nervous since I wasn't able to get any long course training in. I was very relieved when I saw 27.99 posted on the clock and shocked at how close I was at not making it," she said.
The dream was approaching reality, and Grand'Pierre maintained her focused preparation under the guidance of Weber and Assistant Coach Nick Daly. An NCAA waiver allowed her to prolong training all the way through the end of the academic year in June.
"We've been able to train Naomy one-on-one since the season ended, so she's gotten a lot more attention from the coaches," Weber said. "We've tailored her training to the specific events she will be competing in, doing a lot more sprint and power work, while also finding time to switch the pool to long course so she can do a few practices a week in that format."
The big eye-opener came courtesy of FINA, which serves as an international governing body for aquatic competition. FINA awarded Grand'Pierre a scholarship for a three-month training program at the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio from June 14 to September 14.
However, a complication to the plan arose in late April. Grand'Pierre's sub-28 time was initially enough to secure a spot on the Haitian squad, but FINA informed her that there was now an updated qualification mark. By the end of the summer, she must reach 26 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle to complete registration for the Olympic Games.
Despite the new challenge, Grand'Pierre remains undeterred in her quest. She will compete in several international meets in Romania (May 25-29) and in the Bahamas (June 29 - July 2). If she officially qualifies, Grand'Pierre will take part in the Olympic opening ceremonies on August 5. Her main event would be the 50-meter freestyle, with possible qualifications in the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter breaststroke based on her performances at the international meets.
"My first goal is to train very hard because that is the most important part," Grand'Pierre said. "Once I [qualify], it is all about competing and there is nothing you can do but trust your training and swim hard. My first competition goal would be to win the heat that I compete in. I think that would be an awesome opportunity and I would only have to focus on beating the people who are placed in the lanes next to me. My second goal, which is a little more challenging, would be to qualify for semifinals. I am going to see what times I post as I continue to train long course and see if this would be a realistic goal."
Grand'Pierre is the second of Weber's freshmen swimmers to have tried their hands at international qualifiers. Alexander Farrell competed at the British Olympic Swimming Trials in mid-April and took 39th place in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 23.99. Now entering his 11th year as UChicago's head coach, Weber is confident that the journey will bring out the best in Grand'Pierre going forward.
"It's an amazing experience to be able to participate in international competition, especially the Olympics, as she will be able to witness first-hand all the top swimmers in the world and how they approach and handle a competition of this magnitude," Weber said. "I think being at this level of competition will give her more confidence in herself and her abilities and make it easier for her to compete at our top meets and against the top Division III competition."
Stepping onto the starting blocks in Rio would be a dream fulfilled. Grand'Pierre's main purpose is to represent her parents' homeland to the best of her ability. But beyond the results in the pool, she wants to soak in this unique experience for all its worth.
"Most importantly, I just want to have fun and make the best of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said. "Haiti has never had a female swimmer compete for them and the amount of Olympic athletes they have is also scarce. I want to help change the face of Haiti and create more role models for other Haitians around the world to look up to. I think more people will be open to competing for Haiti in the future and as the Olympic Games continue, my goal is for more athletes of Haitian decent to choose to represent Haiti and grow the Olympic team."