Like all the competitors at the Rio Games, Tanzanian swimmer Hilal Hemed Hilal arrived at the Olympics full of hope. And while he didn’t advance beyond the first round of his event, the men’s 50-meter freestyle, he felt proud to be among the world’s best athletes—the vast majority of whom train in anonymity and are unknown to most viewers and corporate sponsors.
By now, we know the narratives, the coaches, and the families of the superstars who during the Games saturate news coverage. But few see the thousands of other hopefuls who arrive at the Games alone except for a few other teammates. Like all athletes, they’ve overcome obstacles in order to compete at the pinnacle of sports—but their journeys often require a different kind of resolve.
Take Isabelle Sambou, a freestyle wrestler from Senegal who placed fifth in the London Olympics and who faces big challenges both on and off the mat. Many in her traditional society question her devotion to such a “masculine” pastime, and she trains in 90-degree heat in a modest gym that’s cooled by a few languid fans.
And consider the determination of Karma, a 26-year-old archer from Bhutan. She didn’t win a medal at her event earlier this week in Rio’s Sambadrome, but it sounds as if she really needs nerves of steel to face the tough crowd she has at home, where archery is the national sport. Since the sport involves sharp metal points—and since drinking is often encouraged at tournaments, as well as chewing pan, a mild narcotic—it’s not surprising that archery mishaps are responsible for most hospital accidents in Bhutan.
Hemed, the 22-year-old Tanzanian swimmer, has his own dramatic story. He first discovered swimming as an adolescent, and for the first half of his training, he swam in a 25-meter pool—half the size of an Olympic-sized one. His training stepped up a notch when he joined a lifeguard club in Dar es Salaam, led by swim coach Alexander Mwaipaisi, who taught rescue techniques such as CPR and how to transport drowning people to safety.
They were skills Hemed put to use in December 2011, when heavy rains combined with high tides in Dar es Salaam, the country’s capital, to create devastating floods that killed more than 20 people and left more than 4,000 homeless. Hemed, a slender, tall man with a dazzling smile and extremely long arms, didn’t hesitate when he learned that Mwaipaisi and others were volunteering to rescue people stranded on their roofs. Still a teenager, Hemed swam through streets flooded with sewage and garbage in order to reach a toddler who was perched with her family on top of her house. Hemed reached for her, placed her gently in a flotation device, secured her with one arm, and paddled her to dry land. “She was terrified,” he said. The water rising, he and his teammates kept returning until they’d delivered each family member to safety. (Hemed also rescued the girl’s brother.)
“It was difficult because the water was so dirty, you couldn’t see what you were swimming on top of and you didn’t want to get cut,” Hemed said. (He did get sick after swallowing some of the putrid water.)
Did the experience bolster his resolve to become an Olympian? Hemed, a modest man of deep faith who describes his achievements as “setting”—not “breaking”—national records, smiled. Only sort of. “It made me want to learn more skills,” he said. “And it definitely made me want to give more back to my community.”
The struggles of Olympic hopefuls outside the limelight is one that Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville explored in a short film released in April called A Fighting Chance.
Neville follows four athletes—Linline Matauatu and Miller Pata, two female beach volleyball players from Vanuatu; Yenebier Guillén, a female boxer from the Dominican Republic; and Tsepo Mathibelle, a male marathon runner from Lesotho—as they train for a chance at the Olympics. (Mathibelle, who did make it to the Games, will compete in the men’s marathon in Rio on Sunday, Aug. 21.)
A few years before they began competing, the beach volleyball players from the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu had never heard of beach volleyball, or volleyball—and certainly never the Olympics. Debbie Masauvukalo, their team’s manager, said in the film that before the duo began progressing in the sport, they had never imagined their lives outside their traditional social roles. “They didn’t know what a dream was,” Masauvukalo said. “All they could see was their lives in the village.”
The same might have been said for Sambou, the freestyle wrestler from Senegal, but she blew past those expectations years ago. At 35, she’s won the African championship nine times, and observers say she has a shot at getting a medal. “In any sport where you’re a woman, they bother you,” she said in a YouTube video. “I was even told, ‘You’ll become like a man. No one will marry you because you’ll look like a man.’”
After these games, she said, she plans on retiring—but only as a competitor. She intends to become her country’s first female wrestling coach.
And Hemed plans to continue training. He enjoyed seeing Rio’s sights and spent a week with his older sister, Layla Hilal, taking them in. The siblings visited the Corcovado statue perched high above the city, and they strolled the iconic stone sidewalk of Copacabana beach. But the Olympic swimmer didn’t go in the water. He avoids the ocean. “I don’t like sharks,” he said.