“Marco!” Teri screamed.
“Polo!” We responded. They swam off; I couldn’t. The minute I let my guard down, Teri tagged me. Right then, I was thrilled that a silly game was my biggest problem.
At 7 years old, I swam in a pool for the first time, and while I was mildly terrified, I was happy. Only a few months earlier, my family was left to negotiate the treacherous waters of life without my father’s aid, leaving me feeling abandoned and afraid. I came to compensate for this loss with support from the Reed family and swimming.
February 8th, 2007: my father calls from what I now know was the precinct. My brother Ismael’s look is unsettling. Papi says, “Hola mi hijo. Tengo malas noticias. Tengo que volver a la República Dominicana por un tiempo.” He was getting deported to the Dominican Republic. Although I was too young and naive to grasp the situation, my brother instantly understood.
When my father was deported, my brother lashed out: he threw chairs, cursed his teachers and stole money, but I was his main dartboard. Once, he shattered a glass bottle over my head. How could someone I loved, who supposedly loved me back, treat me as if I was of no value? Meanwhile my mother was overwhelmed: working two jobs, supporting four kids and returning to school. I questioned everyday how she managed.
To give us a break from our chaotic lifestyle, my mother placed us in the Fresh Air Fund, a program that I am still part of. The Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit agency, provides thousands of New York City children the opportunity to live with host families outside the city. My brother hated it, so he stopped going. But I continued.
I was placed with the Reeds: Fran, Teri, Jack, and Anna. Their diamond chandelier and flat-screen, surround-sound TV caught my eye. I felt like a fish out of water, taken out of my cramped NYC bubble and dropped into New Canaan, Connecticut, a wealthy, homogeneous town. Over the years, the Reeds taught me everything from simple table manners to how to communicate—and, of course, how to stay afloat. Fran became a father figure, giving me pep talks and, despite how awkward we both felt, the sex talk that no one else would. The Reeds encouraged me to try a range of activities that I wasn’t comfortable with; swimming was the one I loved the most.
When I was 15, I built up the courage to join my high school swim team. I was intimidated because I never considered myself athletic and the team was filled with passionate, dedicated swimmers. It turned out to be the best choice I ever made. I began to prosper more than ever; before long, I could compete against the other swimmers.
Like my brother, many would have allowed a father’s absence to have a negative impact. Not me. My father’s absence motivated me to find other sources of support. The way the Reeds stepped in to support me, and the way I supported myself in the pool, taught me to relentlessly seek out and embrace every challenging opportunity for growth. I developed the ability to adapt successfully to any situation. I began to crave new experiences and challenges: I spent a month in France away from my family, I was a keynote speaker for the Fresh Air Fund Gala, and I took more than 720 hours of rigorous after-school classes with Sponsors for Educational Opportunity to ensure a bright future for myself.
Stroke, stroke, stroke. Breathe. Stroke, stroke, stroke. Breathe. My hands take the lead, my legs and feet following. “Faster! Faster!” I can barely make sense of my coach’s words through the rush of the water. My kick speeds up and my arms plunge forward. Once uncomfortable and alone, I now feel powerful and at ease.