On August 15, Conservation International’s Ginny Farmer will step into the Olympic pool in Beijing to swim her least favorite event representing a country where she does not live.
Oh, and she hasn’t swum competitively in almost 10 years.
How Farmer, 32, came to swim for American Samoa is a tale that sets her apart from most Olympians. What she has in common with the other athletes is a desire to compete and live the Olympic dream.
"It’s going to be very exciting," says Farmer, a native Californian who works in CI’s Marine Strategies Program. "I'm really looking forward to seeing all the competition and the cultural exchanges. "I'm just going to give it all I’ve got and then have some fun."
The former San Luis Obispo resident twice competed in the NCAA Division I championships and placed 15th nationally in the 200-meter individual medley (IM) during a collegiate career at Rice University. She also swam the 200- and 400-IM in the 1996 Olympic Trials, but did not come close to making the team.
After a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Jamaica, Farmer won a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fellowship to American Samoa, an unincorporated territory of the United States, where she worked with the Governor’s Coral Reef Advisory Group, helping to preserve the coral reefs against pollution and climate change. Farmer also volunteered her skills to teach islanders of all ages how to swim.
She soon discovered that swimming was not a priority for American Samoans. In fact, the island had no pools.
"Teaching swimming in the ocean was a challenge since there are many things you can’t replicate from a pool," she recalls. "No blocks to dive from, no way to teach flip turns (off a wall) and water quality was an issue after heavy rains."
Farmer tried having some of her students hold a piece of plywood in the ocean to replicate a wall. "It didn’t work so well," she grins.
But the swimming and snorkeling program did help instill a new respect for the coral reefs.
“It helped people appreciate the marine environment and the reefs without walking on them, or harming them,” she says.
After her fellowship in American Samoa ended, Farmer returned to the U.S. and joined CI last September. Earlier this year, she was contacted by Samoan officials, asking if she would consider representing the territory in the Olympics.
Although no Samoans qualified, the International Olympic Committee allows each country one male and one female entry into the 50-meter freestyle.
READ MORE: We've been thinking about the 2008 Olympic Games for months.
Farmer, a distance swimmer, fretted that she’d be swimming "for 30 seconds in my worst event." But encouraged by her father, Dave, an attorney, who "really wanted her to go," Farmer ultimately agreed.
Since February, she’s been swimming up to six hours a day to get in shape. "It would be nice to have a couple more months to train," Farmer says.
Farmer is thrilled to be swimming in the same event (if not at the same level) as U.S. veteran Dara Torres.
"Watching Dara swim in the U.S. Trials at age 41 was really inspiring," says Farmer.
No more inspiring than watching a 32-year-old Olympian giving her all for a country that needed her.