The day was August 19th, 2004 and I was glued to my television watching the Athen’s Olympic swimming final 200 metre individual medley race. I had missed the semi-finals the day prior due to a summer course final exam at the University of Toronto (yes I’m a nerd and I took University summer courses by choice). I can’t swim to save my own life but I am a spectator of the sport – it’s fun to watch. As the professional swimmers were being introduced I literally stood up in shock and admiration when George was announced – Trinidad and Tobago was being represented. My homeland. My country. I remembered thinking, who is George Bovell III? I had never seen him before, nor have I heard of him? And how did he get there? I had never cheered so hard for a fellow country man to win in all my life; and to see him win that Olympic Bronze medal – if you’re Trinidadian the immense joy felt in that moment is difficult to equate into words.
You see, George and I are the same age and I’ve always wondered how did he do it? To truly understand the mental strength, determination, focus and sacrifice you had to have been born in that specific time period in Trinidad & Tobago. The country (as far as my knowledge and research) didn’t have the facilities to help train nor produce an elite professional swimmer – the how’s of his accomplishments still peeks my curiosity today. Truly, the odds were stacked against him in many ways, we are from small twin islands at the base of an archipelago in the Caribbean. And to make it further challenging no one of his caliber had come before him in the sport of swimming from the islands.
Sadly, my journey of following his career path ended in 2005 when I lost a close family member – a lot of things shifted the coming years that took me away from celebrating the triumphs of my countrymen and women. Living in Canada didn’t aid my knowledge, I am not exposed to local Trinidadian news nor do I read the newspaper. On the few occasions I have visited Trinidad I’ve never reached for the newspapers solely based on the unkind headlines that are printed. As much as I adore my country, they are a tough crowd to please – many celebrate victories however some boldly condemn and judge when an outcome isn’t favourable to their liking. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to represent a country at the elite level of a sport, to give it your all only to be condemned or celebrated with nothing in between.
Ten years later…
Being a private person, no one is more surprised than I that I embarked on creating a social media presence on the world wide web but it has blessed me with a lot of opportunities the last few years and I’m very thankful and grateful for it all. Being one of the many Trinidadian’s on social media I was tagged on an Instagram photo of George a decade later in late August 2014. Living abroad keeps me in a bubble from my own culture on the islands so I smiled when I saw he won the Gold Medal in the 100m Individual Medley at the FINA World Cup in Dubai in 2014 – to make things sweeter, he did this on Trinidad & Tobago’s Independence Day! There was a sense of nostalgia so off I went to Google and I found his Twitter account. I’ve been following his journey to the Rio Olympics ever since and I’ve learned A LOT about him as a person. The one thing that continues to stand out though is his sacrifice. The long days spent in the gyms & pools all around the world training by himself – the grind of international races – time spent obtaining VISA’s, travelling by boat, plane etc he paints the realistic picture of what it takes to stand before the lane earned at the Rio Olympics. And the journey hasn’t been an easy one – he mentioned on Twitter his accident in 2011 that left him with a bruise on his brain (very scary by the way – it could have led to a stroke!), being surprised by sharks while swimming in the ocean (my nightmare) and his gratitude for continuing to do what he loves.
What I have enjoyed most of all are his articles – he began writing in the Trinidad newspaper starting 2014 under the headline, “Reflections off the Water” which he has turned into a blog. I truly recommend reading his articles because they are extremely insightful, engaging, honest and truthful – they are views not solely from an elite professional swimmer but from a true Global Citizen. He gives insight into (the invasive) drug testing within his sport, Destination Free Swimming, his quest for truth, on trusting his instincts, his swimming clinics and the list goes on. He is a person I have found deep respect for even though I’ve never met him in life – although I was very fortunate to see him swim at the Pan American Games 2015 in Toronto. I chose to attend the morning heats (every race is one step closer to his goal) – he was the only one smiling on the swimming blocks and after his race he alone walked over to greet an official and took a moment to look up into the crowd to acknowledge his supporters. It’s those small yet simple acts that tells a lot about a person. He’s humble.
One of the most valuable pieces of information I’ve gained from following his journey is how unfair and unethical many international swimming boards are at the elite level, they allow athletes to compete despite sport enhancement drugs being found in their bodily systems – which is extremely unfair to say the least. George is one of the few that competes at the truest level – pushing his mind, body and soul/spirit to it’s limits and beyond. In my mind, he is a trail blazer – inspiring new generations of swimmers in the Caribbean and all around the world. I would like to see the swimming facility in Couva, Trinidad be named after him – after all he paved the path for upcoming athletes and his name is synonymous with swimming in our homeland.
Soon we will all be cheering for him at the Rio Olympics and while I would love for him to medal, to me the journey since his accident which challenged him to become a 5 time Olympian is the real victory. Twelve years later I prepare to watch him race again – this time with much more understanding and knowledge of the person that he is. I think it’s safe to say that George has already made his fellow country men and woman proud of all his accomplishments the last two decades – I want his triumphs and successes in the Rio Olympics to be for him – particularly for the little boy that dared to dream beyond the walls of Trinidad & Tobago to become an Olympic champion.