Just over a month ago, Emilie Grand’Pierre ’23, boasting citizenship in both the United States and Haiti, represented her home country of Haiti at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. She competed in the 100-meter breaststroke, winning her heat with a time of one minute and 14.82 seconds.
The Bowdoin Orient: What was the process for getting onto the Haitian Olympic swim team?
Emilie: Haiti sent a male [swimmer] to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but after that, they kind of disbanded swimming. After the 2010 earthquake, [my mom] wanted to find a way to help Haiti through more than just giving money or working for the Red Cross. All four of my siblings swim, and she saw how much swimming gave to us and our family; we [all] got our jobs through swimming. So, she spearheaded getting swimming back [as an Olympic event for] Haiti. My oldest sister went to the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, so it was through that networking that we got a swim team started. I joined the Haitian National Team in 2018, so I’ve been going to international meets [since] then, [but] it wasn’t until my sister retired in early 2020 that it became an option for me. I was suddenly the fastest Haitian girl.
Q: How did it feel to represent Haiti?
A: It’s so rewarding. Both of my parents are Haitian. Because of the instability [in Haiti], we haven’t been able to go back as often as I would like to. I went to Haitian Mass every Sunday [growing up], all of my parents’ friends in Atlanta are Haitian, so I’ve just been so surrounded by [their support]. I used to be ashamed of being Haitian growing up, just because all I heard was all of the negative things about it. But marrying my parents’ love of Haiti to building a love of my own through swimming and giving back has been super rewarding.
Q: What was it like to live in the Olympic village?
A: We had to quarantine at a pre-Olympic training hotel, but once I actually got in the village, it was just insane to be surrounded by world-class athletes who love what they do. I got to meet people from so many cool countries. There’s this tradition at the Olympics to trade pins, so I got 100 pins to start with, and I could trade them with a whole bunch of different countries. I think my favorite pin was from Seychelles, which is a really tiny island, and the people were really nice. The dining hall was open 24/7. Although we couldn’t go to other venues, the village itself was massive. There was a mile-and-a-half trail along the river. It was so pretty.
Q: How did it feel to win your heat?
A: I actually had a goal time, and I didn’t get it, so [when the race ended] I was like, ‘Oh dang that sucks,’ but then I turned around and saw a camera in my face and was like, ‘Holy s*** what did I do!’ So I turned back around, and I saw that I had won my heat. I was like ‘HOLY S***!’ My teammates from Bowdoin have been joking, ‘How many times did you practice that wave,’ because I waved to the camera. It was honestly the perfect end to a long story.
Q: What has the support from the Bowdoin network been like?
A: The Bowdoin community is insane. There is this one alumna who works for NBC, and she was at the Olympic Village, and she sent me cuts from the cameras she was in charge of at the pool. Even having a Bowdoin grad as a boss for my internship was great; he would send Bowdoin’s articles and Instagram features into my work Slack. We go to such a small school, but literally everywhere I go I’m never alone because someone else goes to Bowdoin. My email especially was flooded. I got a personal email from President Rose. It was crazy. I took a screenshot of it, and it’s definitely something I will carry forever.
Q: Did you meet anyone cool at the Olympics?
A: I saw Naomi Osaka in front of me at the dining hall in line to get Japanese gyoza, so I said hi to her. And then a lot of the smaller teams got to warm up together, and our little area was right next to Team USA, so we got to see all the big superstar swimmers. One time I popped up and Katie Ledecky was in the lane next to me. It was insane to be surrounded by such high-achieving athletes.
Q: If you could give your pre-Olympic self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Definitely pack less things so you can bring more of the gear and souvenirs home! I had to leave a couple [souvenirs] behind because I didn’t have room in my suitcase. Or, I think I was a little anxious leading up to it, [so I’d tell myself to] chill. The environment was so supportive and rewarding. I’d want to tell myself that I deserve this opportunity.