We are all fascinated with Olympians. What does it feel like to win a gold medal? What amazing confluence of life trajectory events have to align for one person to be that much better than everyone else? What sacrifices? What motivations? What combination of natural ability, supportive family, great coaching, insane training, and dumb luck does it take?
It’s not surprising that Olympians are our heroes, but they’re not exactly relatable. Until now. May I present Ethiopia’s Robel Kiros Habte, Rio’s slowest Olympic swimmer. So he’s a little chubby, having gained weight, he says, after a car accident. Some people have been less than kind, and the moniker “Robel the Whale,” has been bandied about. Really? What is wrong with you people? I hope he embraces it. I mean, who wouldn’t want to swim like a whale? If people said you ran like a whale or walked the balance beam like a whale that might be insulting, but whatever…
For the most part, the Ethiopian underdog is a crowd favorite in Rio. As well he should be. Who’s to say that coming in 59th doesn’t take more drive than coming in first? Would Michael Phelps have quit if he couldn’t taste Olympic Gold from the time he donned his first pair of speedos? What better example of Olympic Spirit than showing up knowing that you’ll be the last to touch the wall?
Just how slow is Robel? Well, if you have never swum competitively, and you think maybe you could beat him yourself, you can’t. If you could swim 100 meters in less than 1:04:95 minutes, you’d know. Which makes any extra flab that much more remarkable. The man is far from out of shape.
Still, it’s not an Olympic time or a National time or even a State time. The state record for High School boys in Florida, for example, is under 45 seconds. But Robel the Rebel is not from the United States, he is from Ethiopia, the land of runners. “Everybody, every day you wake up in Ethiopia, you run, he said. “But I didn’t want to run, I wanted to be a swimmer…It didn’t matter where I finished.”
I started swimming my freshman year of high school for one reason. My dad made me. I was not pleased. The first two months or so I put my anger into my lap swimming. How dare my father interfere with my right to be a couch potato? But then it actually turned out to be kind of fun. I loved the water, and I got in shape for the first time, and no one on the team ever made me feel like I was any less valuable than the top swimmers who’d been training since preschool. I think this is evidence of exemplary coaching, and I found this same dedication to team building in the other coaches I swam for. I am very grateful for it.
But I still came in last. Every damn time. Heat after heat. Meet after meet. Dead last. Eventually I got better, and I moved to a new state with a much less competitive swim culture. After that, sometimes I came in second to last. I tried hard to remember that despite being slow for a competitive swimmer, I was a much better swimmer than anyone who was not actually on the team. The average person cannot, after all, swim a mile and a half every day after school. So it’s pretty cool if you can do this, even if your teammates have already showered and are eating sandwiches by the time you get done.
So I know what it feels like to come in last. And you know what would be totally awesome? Coming in last at the Olympics. “I am so happy because it is my first competition in the Olympics,” said Robel. He sure looks like an Olympian to me.