Naomi Ruele passionately believes in her position as a role model. - Photo by 5FM-twitter

By Karien Jonckheere

Naomi Ruele is citizen of Botswana who studied in the US and qualified to represent her country in swimming at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Having graduated from university in 2015, she’s now working in New York City, not only where the Covid-19 pandemic had hit hard but also where thousands protested following the police killing of George Floyd, giving renewed impetus to the call that Black Lives Matter. That’s what occupied Ruele’s mind. She’s certainly been subjected to her share of racial discrimination. Despite reaching the highest echelons of her sport, being one of the very few black swimmers on a pool deck inexplicably seems to bring that out in people. “There is a huge stigma that black people can’t swim,” she explained. “With the current racial climate, I think it’s being brought to light. But to give some examples of my personal experiences, I have been told I shouldn’t know how to swim because I’m black. Why don’t I try a sport more suited for me? But also, there have been so many times where people have gone so far as to bring a biological standpoint. I have had someone tell me they are shocked I know how to swim because ‘black people are usually big-boned, thus heavier in the water’.”
Undeterred, Ruele relished exposing her doubters’ ignorance in the pool. As Florida International University (FIU) head coach Randy Horner pointed out: “Naomi was one of the top athletes in our programme history at FIU. “She qualified and participated in the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] Championships each year and dominated Conference USA to help our team win five team championships in her time at FIU.” While representing her country at the Olympics was always a target, Ruele has seen her role in the pool as more than that: to inspire other Batswana swimmers to continue breaking down that stereotype. “I think after so many different life-changing occurrences in 2020, my purpose in the swimming world has been brought to light,” she said. “I started swimming so that I could do great things and qualify for the Rio Olympics. Once I realised the impact that could have to create positive change, my goals shifted to continue to create a positive impact for young black girls and boys from Botswana and show them it is in fact possible. “That is still my ultimate goal and again, with the racial climate, I’m starting to wonder if my knowledge, experience and even ideas would be better suited in working to decrease that stigma. Basically, I’m saying I’m currently reviewing my priorities and what my place is. The Olympics is still in my head though.”

Ending the stigma of black swimmers
Ruele also believes passionately in her position as a role model, and the opportunity she has, particularly now, to reshape people’s mindsets. “I think there is a huge stigma about African countries in general when it comes to swimming that does not sit right with me. I have focused a lot of my life trying to lead by example and motivate other people to know that just because this societal stigma exists and there are a lot of people rooting against you, nothing is impossible. “I am hoping to create a space where other swimmers are able to determine their own fate. I believe that my path is one I set for myself and everyone has the capability to do that for themselves. I want to see swimmers at home beat my times and have an even better career than I did. It is the only way Botswana swimming can grow. It doesn’t end with me.” –

This article was first published by New Frame.

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