I spent quite a bit of my childhood watching swim meets — or rather, trying not to watch swim meets. When I was nine, my older sister Michelle joined the swim team. Every Saturday morning, I prepared a survival kit: Game Boy, unread books, plenty of craft supplies and plenty of snacks.
The family would drive hours to the tepid pools of various high schools in our district, crowded with crying children I didn’t want to talk to, where my sanity was maintained only by the hope the snack bar would have brownies. By middle school, my parents finally excused me from swim meets, leaving me as queen of an empty house for seven hours every Saturday.
In the last five days, I’ve spent 24 full hours watching Michelle’s latest swim meet at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Though the commute was much longer and the snack bar did not have brownies, the energy in the stands far surpassed anything I’d ever experienced. The die-hard cheering sections for each competitor — the family, friends and teammates from their home country — are what I expected.
What I didn’t expect were the thousands upon thousands of Brazilians, going absolutely nuts every time any Brazilian was in a race. When Roy Perkins, a Team USA swimmer with no hands or feet, won the S5 50-meter butterfly, he heard the crowd cheering so loudly he assumed a Brazilian swimmer must have come in first. In fact, the Brazilian came in third, but we soon learned the crowd starts into a whirl of jumping, cheering, singing and hugging in unconditional support of every Brazilian swimmer.
Watching Paralympic swimming is amazing. I saw swimmers set world records and then get lifted out of the pool into their wheelchairs. Swimmers missing both legs, both arms or totally blind. I saw a host of disabilities I never even had past concept of, each athlete with a story of resilience despite birth defect, disease or injury.
The only other time I’ve been to such a swim meet was two years ago in California, and it made me totally rethink the automatic sympathy with which I had previously reacted to disabled people. Before, passing someone on the street in a motorized wheelchair, you might never guess he or she is an internationally competitive swimmer. Watching Paralympic competition taught me at a visceral level that nothing need limit a person.
For my first two days at the Paralympics, my own whirl of jumping, cheering, singing and hugging was concentrated primarily around my sister’s races.
On Monday, Michelle set a world record in the S9 100 free, and on Tuesday my little sister and I were amped up to watch her other individual event, the 50-meter freestyle. A few hours before her event, a middle-aged Brazilian woman, Ana Claudia, sat down next to me and started to make small talk. Despite the fact that she knew almost zero English and my Portuguese is limited to “thank you” and cognates from high school Spanish class, she quickly integrated my little sister and me into the Brazilian crowd.
By the time Michelle was about to race, I knew Claudia’s whole family, was Facebook friends with her daughter, had eaten her snacks, given her hugs, accepted her Brazil-shaped necklace and given her a bracelet honoring Michelle in return. As Michelle and the other swimmers lined up on the starting blocks, Ana Claudia looked at me and said something in Portuguese. Her daughter translated, “Your sister is my sister.”
For the next 28.29 seconds of Michelle’s 50-meter free, the entire section of nearby Brazilians cheered Michelle on as one of their own. When Michelle won the 50, her second gold medal, my little sister and I received hugs so fierce that our faces were smeared with green-for-Brazil face paint.
As the week progressed, my little sister and I started singing and dancing with the Brazilians for their victories. My dad started cheering “BRAZIL!” at any group of excited-looking passersby. For the first time in my life, watching a swim meet became an adrenaline-pumping, euphoria-inducing experience.
I asked the families of some U.S. Paralympians for bits of wisdom to put in this article, and one athlete’s mother, Lila Martinez, said, “A culture of resilience is perpetual when the heart is open.”
I think I was lucky that the Brazilians opened my heart to all that a swim meet could be. A crowd of enthusiastic supporters can transcend culture and age, and at the Paralympics, it means thousands of fans can be inspired by each athlete’s story of resilience.
As a long-time skeptic of spectator sports, the Paralympics made me realize I can make the choice to enjoy watching swim meets. So if you see me shouting “BRAZIL!!” at the next Brown and White game, you know where I got it.
Karen Konkoly, ’17, is a columnist for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]