This year, as I do every four years, I will watch the opening ceremonies at the Olympics and cry. It won’t be out of idealism or patriotism but regret.
I was an Olympic-caliber athlete, and I decided not to compete for a spot in the 1992 Barcelona Games. I made up my mind in a haze of chlorine and in the midst of anger and confusion about my national identity. Sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off the way you wish it would. Sometimes, the biggest obstacle to success is your own mind.
I know the Olympics are about individual accomplishment, but they are also enveloped in national pride. Who could forget the “miracle on ice” hockey game in 1980, when the United States beat the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War? If the U.S. doesn’t come away with the most gold medals in London, pundits will ponder what it means. In countries where medals are rare, an individual’s effort is claimed by an entire homeland. Every four years, the athlete is thrust into the role of patriot. When you are an expatriate, all this can be challenging.
I won my first swim meet at the age of 3 in Mexico City, the place where I was born. My mother still has an old video of me rushing up to the podium for my medal, before the other competitors even finished touching the wall. When we moved to the United States in 1977, I kept swimming. It was so natural and effortless for me that three years later my parents moved our entire family from Huntington Beach to Mission Viejo, then the swimming mecca of the world.
I began training five hours a day, six days a week, rain or shine, with just two weeks off a year. Getting up at 4:45 a.m. was my daily routine. My mother was a constant and sturdy companion in those dark early morning hours, as I spooned cereal into my mouth. She never pushed but only encouraged me. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard or painful. There were many mornings when I simply couldn’t get out of bed — until my coach called and my mother put the phone to my ear, and I heard his scary, gravelly voice: “MUUN-EE-OS, where are you?”
By the time I was 12, I landed a spot on a junior U.S. “travel team” set to compete abroad. But as I raced to tell my parents the good news, my coach stopped me. There was a problem. I was not a U.S. citizen, so I couldn’t compete for the United States.
My nationality wasn’t something I had ever contemplated. I knew my family had immigrated and that all my relatives were in Mexico, but was I American or Mexican? It seemed to me I was both.
But now that wouldn’t do. I couldn’t be on the team. It was devastating. So I rebelled. If I couldn’t swim for the U.S., I would swim for Mexico, where I was a citizen. Surely the country where I was born would take me in, welcome me, and I would go on to win a gold medal for Mexico in the Olympics. So I thought.
My experience as a Mexican swimmer started badly and ended worse. Some of my new teammates were friendly enough, but there was always the implication that I didn’t belong. Did I speak Spanish fluently enough; could I sing the national anthem word for word? And why had I chosen to leave the patria in the first place?
And every swim meet in Mexico was laden with disaster, contrary to the orderliness I had grown up with in the United States. At one meet, I discovered, a referee had been paid to disqualify me; at another, the pool was the color of mud, and we had to train in shark-infested ocean waters until it was cleaned. When I broke a national record, the swimming administrators wouldn’t acknowledge it.
The last time I swam for Mexico was at the 1991 Pan American Games in Cuba, a year before the Barcelona Games. I had trained that summer with the University of Texas women’s team — at the time, the No. 1 U.S. college swim program. It was grueling; I had pushed myself harder than ever. But when I landed in Cuba, my Mexican coach pulled me aside. The Mexican Swimming Federation had “forgotten” to enroll me in my races. I would swim in only a couple of relays and one individual event.
I don’t remember if I cried. I do remember shutting down. Swimming, the Pan Am Games, the Olympics down the road — nothing mattered anymore. I was done. The bureaucracy, and always feeling like a stranger among my Mexican teammates, did me in. I quit swimming.
But now I realize how foolish I was. Many of my American friends who deserved a spot on the U.S. team didn’t make it. One, who held an American record, was sidelined with a knee injury. Another lost in the Seoul Olympics to competitors who, it was discovered later, were on steroids. And what about the athletes who had to forfeit their Olympic dreams in 1980 and 1984 because of politics? How is any of that fair?
Swimming was the test of my young life, and I failed because I was preoccupied with things that didn’t matter. Was I a Mexican swimmer or an American one? I was both and neither, and in the end, it wasn’t important. I forgot what should have mattered most: my loyalty to the cool blue neutral territory of the swimming pool.
When I watch the world’s best swimmers parade behind their flags this summer, I’ll wish one more time that I had known then what I know so clearly now: Sports isn’t about fairness but mental toughness. You compete, proudly, for team and country, but in the end you swim against the clock, and for yourself.
Lorenza Munoz is a former Times staff writer. https://www.lorenzamunoz.com