Two friends pursuing a shared Olympic dream
Swimmer Joyce Tafatatah left her family in Malawi and moved to the Netherlands in order to pursue her dream of competing at the Olympic Games.
Joyce started swimming at the very early age of four, and competed in her first big event when she was just eight. “My older brother used to swim and my mother really loved swimming, so I just watched them and then I picked it up slowly. I started to become really good at it, I just liked it and I continued,” she says of her early beginnings in the sport.
Swimming in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeast Africa bordering Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, is not easy mainly due to the lack of facilities. Most of the pools are only 25m instead of 50m, which is the standard for international competition.
“There are not really high standards if you are swimming in Malawi. Swimming is more for fun and not taken seriously. However, I take it seriously,” she explains. “Most people in Malawi quit swimming by the age of 14. I would like to change the attitude of people in Malawi to sports. It is a big deal and I think that we have the resources to spend on facilities, but we don’t,” she said.
In 2011 Joyce was invited to travel to the Netherlands for the opportunity to meet with a professional coach. He told her she had talent, and that was enough to encourage her to continue pursuing her passion.
At the 10th All African Games in Maputo (MOZ) in September 2011, Joyce was offered a universality place to compete at the London 2012 Olympic Games, aged just 14. At the Malawi National Swimming Championships in March 2012 she broke six national records becoming an overnight sensation at home.
And then at London 2012, as one of the youngest competitors at the Games, she competed in the 50m freestyle, going on to swim a personal best time of 27.74. “I don’t think I knew what was going on in London because I was so young. I mean it was just another swimming competition that was big,” she explained. “It was a great experience, and I am so glad I took part so I saw how it actually works. How the big guys do it.”
Following her Olympic experience she went back to Malawi, but it was winter and she was being forced to train outside in the cold, which took its toll on her health.
But it did not break her resolve. “My biggest dream was, and still is, to qualify for Rio 2016,” she explained. And in order to help her achieve that dream, her parents decided she should move to a place where she had the proper facilities to train. She packed up her things and moved to the Netherlands.
Adapting to the new culture was the hardest thing. “It is a really different culture from back home and it was also hard because I did not have my parents with me,” she explained.
“Also when I got there it was one of the coldest winters, which made it even worse for me because I had never seen snow before,” she added.
Joyce has built up a good social environment in her new European home. She was helped when she met Jannah Sonnenschein, an 18-year-old swimmer from Mozambique who had herself relocated to train in the Netherlands.
“I moved to the Netherlands when I was 15,” explained Jannah. “When Joyce came to the Netherlands I knew exactly what she was going through so I went up to her on the first day of practice, so she would feel more comfortable and accepted in that different world. “Joyce is a very strong woman. She went through a lot that first year with all those changes, but she did well. She is also a very honest person,” she added.
The two are now like sisters. One morning after training they were sitting together just chatting, as friends do, and they decided they would go to the Youth Olympic Games - together. It is a dream they fulfilled, both qualifying for the Nanjing 2014 with their respective countries.
After Nanjing 2014 they will go their separate ways again. Jannah is going to study and swim at New Mexico State University in the USA. Her plan is to train there and hopefully qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, Joyce will continue her high school studies in the Netherlands where she will also be training in a bid to realise her dream of competing at the Olympic Games.
However, if all goes to plan, they will be reunited once more - in Rio in 2016!
By Laura Godenzi, IOC Young Reporter, Switzerland