Serge Michel in Miami, Renan Toussaint, Matiado Vilme in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON / MIAMI — When Naomy Grand'Pierre was a child, three of her mother's cousins drowned in an accident in Haiti. The event sparked such fear in Grand'Pierre's mother that she made sure her own children would never meet a similar fate. So, she enrolled them in swimming lessons, which changed their lives.
"Swimming lessons led to training, then competitions, and that's how I learned about the Olympic Games and decided I wanted to represent Haiti in this sport," she said.
Grand'Pierre, 22, is Haiti's first female Olympic swimmer. She represented the country at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where she competed in the 50-meter freestyle event. She finished 56th with a time of 27.46 seconds, not fast enough to advance to the semifinals. Now, the Montreal, Canada-born Haitian American who grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, is training to race in Tokyo, Japan, in 2020.
"The most valuable lesson (I learned from the 2016 Olympics) is that dreams do come true," Grand'Pierre said in a 2017 interview with her sweat, a digital platform dedicated to women's health and fitness.
"It's super cliché, but when I was 10 years old, I really wanted to go to the Olympics. I would tell everybody and would always get negative feedback. People would say, 'You know how hard it is to do that? You're not fast enough.' So, I learned very early on, dreams are super fragile and you only share it with people who are there to encourage you and share that journey with you."
The swimmer, wearing a white jacket adorned with Haiti emblems, was all smiles as she sat down for a conversation with VOA Creole at the Caribbean Marketplace in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood.
"I train every day," she said. "It takes a lot of dedication, mental strength, but I'm doing everything I can to represent Haiti in the best possible way."
Grand'Pierre currently lives and trains in Atlanta. Her workout routine is a mix of swimming, running, weights and core exercises six days a week.
Haiti's Rio team was the country's largest since 1976 and included 10 athletes (seven men, three women). But they did not medal. In fact, the country has not won an Olympic medal since 1928, when Silvio Cator won silver in the long jump competition and became a national hero.
Budgetary constraints also pose a problem. VOA Creole was unable to get specifics on this year's budget from Haiti's Olympic Committee. But the budget for 2016 was a paltry 4.5 million gourdes (about $45,000), according to a report published in Haiti Libre newspaper.
Some members of the Haitian diaspora in the United States are trying to help. Haitian Ballers, a nonprofit group launched by Haitian American basketball coach Yves Jean, traveled to Haiti with friends in May to announce an initiative to refurbish swimming pools where local athletes can train.
"We're thinking about possibly hotel pools, doing a partnership at hotel pools. Wherever we can find a pool, we would love to get in, but we really need sponsors at this point," said Stacey Blitch, an American sports and fitness specialist who accompanied Haitian Ballers to Port-au-Prince.
Grand'Pierre participated in one of the group's events in Port-au-Prince at a swimming pool at Adventist University of Haiti.
Although the odds seem to be against her, Grand'Pierre remains positive and undeterred.
"I feel very supported by the Haitian community. They are very proud of me, and I get a lot of positive feedback," she said.
Grand'Pierre says the Olympic swim team has launched an online fundraising campaign on HaitiRoadToTokyo.com. Their goal is $150,000. To get the word out, the star swimmer posed for photos, shook hands and gave interviews in Little Haiti. Her next meet and greet with the Haitian community is set for June 13 in Chicago.