SWIMMING NEVER INTERESTED ME BUT IT CHANGED MY WORLD
I wasn’t always a swimmer. Growing up, my sister swam; I was in the marching band and preferred team sports. After practice, I’d wait in the stands until we could go home but, one day, aged 15, they challenged me to swim. I picked it up really quickly and, within 2 years, I was good enough to earn a college swimming scholarship and literally went from swimming on my local team to representing the United States at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. The more I swam, the more I liked doing it. I could constantly see myself improving so I’d set myself targets and, the more I hit them, the bigger the next target became. First I wanted to swim with my age group, then to swim in college, then the Olympics… and within no time at all I was swimming on the international stage. I thought ‘Ok, this is serious now. I can do this. Now I want to win a medal.’ It just kept evolving.
‘It’s interesting because, before I started swimming, it never interested me at all. It looked repetitive and boring… Watching my sister swim, I thought ‘Swimming up and down, up and down in the same line… man, that sounds like a good time!’’
SWIMMING, MEDITATION & FREEDOM
Swimming is an incredible outlet. It’s almost like meditation and yoga because you don’t have to talk to anybody. Your face is in the water and you’re just concentrating on the movements and calmness of the water; hearing the sounds and letting the water wash over you.
Aged 17, I unexpectedly lost my sight and swimming became my sanctuary. It was something that, sighted or not, didn’t change. I could still practice, I didn’t have to talk to anyone of think about what was happening on land, I could just put my head in the water and keep swimming. It was such a great outlet and really kept me sane; giving me stability and a way to keep achieving at a time when I felt like my world was falling apart. I swam more than ever and the Paralympics took over naturally. I had no idea that swimming would become as important to me as it did but I’m glad it did. It’s taken me all over the world and been an incredible experience.
‘After losing my vision, it would have been easy to sit around feeling depressed thinking ‘Why is this happening to me?’ but swimming kept me active and healthy. If I’d still been playing soccer, things could have been very different. I could never have continued playing with the vision I have so I don’t know if it was fate but I’m glad swimming became a part of my life when it did.’
THE BIGGEST SURPRISE… HOW FAST TRACK IT WAS
Everything happened so quickly. One minute I wasn’t swimming, the next I was representing Team USA; then I lost 80% of my sight but carried on swimming and, the next minute, I’m travelling the world and standing on the podium winning Paralympic medals and breaking World Records… all by age 23!
SWIMMING, SPEEDO & ME
After my final race at Rio 2016, I ran up into the stands to see my parents. In the pool, I’m 100% focused on my performance but, looking down into the stadium and seeing the crown was surreal… knowing that I got to go down there and compete in front of 30,000 people at the 2nd biggest sporting event in the world. If anybody had told me that when I was 16 and sighted I’d have laughed at them because, initially, I’d swam as a joke ‘… like I’m going to put a speedo on… ha ha ha.’ The fact that I’ve been able to take it to this level was a surprise in itself but it’s been so important to me. Constantly having that next challenge, a goal that I could achieve sighted or not, even now really encourages me. Each time I achieve a goal, I think ‘Ok, I’ve got to take this opportunity and make it something’ so to be able to swim on the world stage for the past 12 years and to compete in over 27 countries, it’s been wild.
SMASHING GLASS CEILINGS & WORLD RECORDS
Winning my first Olympic medal at London 2012 was surreal. I’d been struggling for a while so to break through that glass ceiling was a massive relief. Four years previously, I’d raced at Beijing and I didn’t win any medals which was difficult because there’d been such high expectations of me so to stand on that podium and think ‘I did it. I can do it again’ was exciting.
‘The first time I walked in Olympic opening ceremonies was incredible – one of THE coolest moments of my life. Walking into a stadium with 30,000 people and hearing the massive roar from the crowd, I’ll never forget it. Our team was chanting ‘USA, USA, USA…’ before we walked out so to be part of that was incredible.’
TEAM USA ALL THE WAY
I love watching other athletes and seeing their reactions, especially when my teammates win medals. Even though it’s not me, it’s still exciting because I know how hard we all work for that little moment. To be successful is… *inhales*… It’s pretty wild to think that I trained 3600 hours between January 2016 and my races at Rio 2016, all for less than 5mins of racing over 10 days.
BEST ADVICE: 1 MILLION WAYS TO ACHIEVE. FIND YOURS.
One of my coaches said something that resonated with me enormously… In the Olympic final, there are 8 competitors. There are only 3 medals so 5 people will leave with nothing. In the 100m freestyle (the fastest 100m swam), for example, all 8 swimmers start simultaneously but, in 2012, a gold meal was won in 47secs.52 (Nathan Adrian, USA) and the silver in 47sec.53 (James Magnussen, Australia), meaning that both swimmers practically touched the wall simultaneously. All 8 swimmers follow different diets, train differently, are different heights, sizes, some sleep better than others… so it’s incredibly difficult to determine what’s the ‘golden ticket’ or what will make you successful. Despite this, so many athletes still compare themselves to other athletes, thinking ‘If that athlete’s doing it and they’re the best, I want to do what they’re doing’ but everybody is different. You have to focus on what you’re doing; what works for you; what makes you better. It’s so important because it shows that there’s never only one way to achieve something. If something doesn’t work for you personally, don’t give up. Try another way.
‘At the Olympics 2012, everyone was wearing kinesiology tape. In 2016, it was all about the cupping. Everyone’s doing all the newest, latest, greatest but it’s actually centuries old Chinese culture. I just think to myself ‘C’mon, what’s really the right thing?’’
SINK OR SWIM: MY 1ST MEDAL WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT TO ME
The 2012 Olympics was a wild rollercoaster for me. During my first 2 events, I was ranked 3rd in the world; everybody was telling me I was supposed to win but I didn’t win anything. I came 4th and 5th. That was so frustrating. Four years previously, I’d competed at my first Olympics and didn’t win anything. I had no idea why so I spent the next 3 years swimming internationally, improving and consistently winning medals so, to arrive in London and feel déjà vu, was awful; however, this time, I was more experienced. I thought ‘Stop. Go back to the drawing board… OK. What do I do now? Should I move on and make it another Beijing or should I go and determine what was missing?’ The answer was simple. Everybody was putting so much pressure on me to win that I was taking it too seriously. I swim the fastest when I’m happy so, to win, I needed to have fun.
When I won my first bronze medal (100m freestyle) I was so excited. The pressure had finally been lifted and I felt free again. I kept thinking ‘It’s achievable. I’ve shown the world I can do it. I’m a medallist… If I had what it takes to win it once, I can do it again.’ I walked up to one of the ambassadors to collect my things and said ‘Oh, you’ve probably never met someone so excited to get 3rd place in your life’ and he replied ‘Actually, the guy before you was pretty excited too. It’s a medal’ and I was like ‘Um… Ok’ haha
GETTING EXCITED, HAVING FUN & DOING IT MY WAY
The key to success is enjoying the experience. Watching videos back from London 2012, I look at myself in the earlier videos and think ‘What’s wrong with me? Why do I look so serious?’ I remember my coach saying ‘You know, it’s just a swim meet’ and he was right. Attitude is vital and, to win, I needed to change mine; to stop putting the Olympics on some unattainable pedestal and start believing ‘It is just a swim meet. I’m just trying to swim as fast as I can like always.’ That completely changed my mentality and the next day when I walked out to the 100m freestyle, I was really happy. They called ‘It’s Tucker Dupree from the United States’, I walked out from behind the screen, looked at the camera and *clicks* *winks* *pistol points hands*. I was having more fun and it felt good.
‘What makes someone a champion in the biggest part of the sport? Other than training, it’s definitely mentality. I won my bronze medal by 2/10ths of a second. It’s crazy to think that that’s the difference between winning a medal and not winning one so you really need to make sure that you feel calm and confident mentally – and happy, that’s so important – before the race so that you really focus.’
The words ‘I Am’ are a big part of my life. I have them tattooed on my arm and they represent self-identity. They remind me that whatever happens: You’re in charge of how you feel and not what other people think of you or what other people say to you. What you do with that… it’s up to you. That’s very important to me. Many people tell me things like ‘Hey you don’t look blind’ or ‘You look very positive’ – whatever that is! So I just think to myself ‘That’s great but why wouldn’t I?’ At the end of the day, what’s most important to me is what I think of myself. Am I a nice person? Am I trying my best?
FAVOURITE ATHLETE TO COMPETE AGAINST
Ukraine’s Maksym Veraksa. He wins absolutely everything. Racing against him is always exciting because he’s the best in the world so to have the opportunity to race against and hopefully beat him, which I have a few times, is great.
‘There will always be people who, be they a positive or a negative stimulus, will help you to become successful… the most important thing is: what are you going to do with it?’