I’m not asking you to walk. I’m asking you to swim.
Ileana Rodriguez remembers that simple request very well. And it means the world to her even now, 12 years later.
At the time, the Cuban immigrant was the 15-year-old new girl at Palmetto Senior High School in Miami, who found herself in an unfamiliar country, an unfamiliar school and trying to speak an unfamiliar language.
And, oh yeah – she was in a wheelchair.
But the swim coach at her new school didn’t see any limitations, so why should she? He made that request – and Rodriguez fulfilled it.
So what that she didn’t speak a lick of English. Being in the water needed no translation.
“In the water, people cannot tell I’m in a wheelchair,” Rodriguez says. “I find freedom in the water. Everyone is the same. Finally I could fit in. I thought I was the coolest person in the world.”
Surely she was a little nervous right?
“I was more worried about my English than I was about swimming,” she recalls. “Palmetto is in the middle of a very American Miami neighborhood. Nobody spoke Spanish. “
Rodriguez was still getting used to the fact that she could not walk anymore. A spinal cord malformation slowly robbed her of that just as she was becoming a teenager in her home of Matanzas, Cuba.
Getting back in the water re-united her with one of her first loves. Rodriguez started diving competitively at the age of 7. Tired of doing flips, she turned to a more conventional route – swimming in straight lines as fast as she could.
She stuck with it until something else stole her heart – ballet.
“I thought being a dancer was a much cooler thing to do,” Rodriguez admits.
But then the blood in the veins of Rodriguez’s spine started circulating the wrong way, eventually disconnecting the nerves and causing a stroke. She would not dance again.
At the age of 13, a wheelchair became part of her everyday life – a difficult adjustment made even tougher by her home country.
“There’s a lot of hassles growing up in a wheelchair in Cuba," she says.
Many of them involve old buildings that have no wheelchair access. Her parents wanted better for her – and they found it here in the United States.
“When we saw the opportunities we could have in the U.S., it wasn’t a question,” says Rodriguez. “We decided to bring the whole family … when we could. You know how Cuba is.”
And Rodriguez seized on that opportunity. That challenge at Palmetto re-ignited a competitive fire. And so she kept swimming throughout high school and through much of her college days at Florida International University. She worked with The Flying Fish swim club in Kendall, getting better and better.
Good enough to be ranked third in the world in the 100-meter breaststroke. Good enough to represent the United States in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London in September.
The former Palmetto Panther and FIU architecture graduate now carries the pride of being a member of Team USA and chasing a lifelong dream.
“The Olympic and Paralympic Games are the best events in the world. Athletes come together for one dream. I’m proud to be part of a great movement and a great group of people,” Rodriguez beams.
She may swim in up to five separate events, with the breaststroke as her strength. As for her medal chances?
“That would be amazing. That’s my biggest dream. Seeing that flag raised, what else can I ask for?”
“I’m going to swim my best and enjoy it as much as I can. If you work so hard, you have to make sure to enjoy it," Rodriguez continues. "I’m full of excitement now. The London Olympics are going to be something great.”
In the meantime, Rodriguez continues her training at the U.S. Olympic Center in Colorado Springs. She’ll have a final tuneup in Canada before heading to London.
“Mentally, it’s a challenge. You have to find something to motivate yourself every day. So I always say, ‘If I’m wet, I’m gonna try.’”
And when Rodriguez finally gets wet in the pools of the London Aquatics Centre, it will complete a journey started by a simple challenge by her high school swim coach.
“Palmetto taught me what you can do – how far you can go. I’m still the same person whether I’m sitting or standing,” Rodriguez says. “And I can still dance if I want to. I have no limits for myself.”