Editor’s Note: An LA84 grant to the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society funded three reporters to attend, report and write stories from the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
BUDAPEST – To a spectator watching World Championship swimmers compete, the athletes look fairly identical: goggles, swim caps and impossibly tight bathing suits. While their appearances may be similar, what makes the athletes unique is something that can’t be seen from the stands– their background.
Representing American Samoa in the 200m breaststroke, Tilali Scanlan’s background doesn’t involve a swimming pool or training facility. Unless you count the Central South Pacific.
“I swim in the ocean with the sharks and the jellyfish,” said Scanlan, “It’s dangerous. The currents are pretty strong. The rip current has taken a lot of lives of children in American Samoa.”
Scanlan is the only swimmer representing American Samoa in the 17th FINA World Championships. The 17-year-old is here in Budapest without her parents or brother – he was supposed to make the trip before got deployed a week prior to the event. But being alone abroad isn’t the biggest challenge Scanlan’s faced in her swimming career.
“Most of the time it’s just been me coaching myself. We don’t have swim shops so I have to order my suits online and there’s no funds. I went door to door to people around the island and asked them for sponsorships. I only heard back from two but it was enough with the paycheck I got from working all summer,” she said. FINA helped her with the flight to Budapest and hotel accommodations, but Scanlan has worked hard in the ocean and her job to be where she is today.
While Scanlan’s own story is influential, she feels inspired by other athletes in developing islands or countries who have found challenges in training.
Athletes such as Leonordao de Deus from Brazil may not have had to train in the ocean, but de Deus also recognizes the challenges of being from a country with lower funded programs. “We need more investments,” said de Deus. “Schools need to fundraise for younger athletes to train. We have a lot of older athletes here because the younger ones aren’t finding new swimming opportunities. We need to start to improve these young athletes because the base in our country is very small.”
Scanlan has become friends with athletes from around the world and has found a motivating network through swimming. “It’s such an amazing feeling having other countries that have little funding here with me. Seeing other athletes make it to this level where thousands of fans are cheering us on is so cool.”
While Scanlan seems to have become one with the blacktip reef shark, she hopes American Samoa will find funding for swimming facilities very soon. Scanlan also has an idea for her own future. She hopes to continue representing American Samoa at swim events and wants to start a youth training program to encourage younger people in her hometown to get in the water.
“By being here I’ve seen people realize that swimming can be a future for us if we just find some facilities or support. We may not have a pool, and kids on our island don’t even know how to swim, but just being here and keeping America Samoa’s flag up is enough for me to keep going.”