A chance encounter gave South Surrey native Vanessa Rivas the opportunity to represent her country in the World Swimming Championships, however, if she stands on the podium, she won’t be wearing a Maple Leaf.
A former member of the Langley Olympians and the Pacific Sea Wolves swim clubs, when Rivas was 12 years old she was ranked first in breaststroke in Canada.
“Her father is from the Dominican Republic… Due to the loss of a family member, when she was 15, she said she wouldn’t mind getting to know her family in the Dominican Republic,” her mother, Lisa Clark, said.
Mother and daughter took a 17-day trip to the Dominican Republic in 2012. While waiting in line to check their luggage before the return flight, Clark noticed something that would, ultimately, change the course of her daughter’s life.
“I saw a gentleman in front of me that had a T-shirt on that said ‘technical director of the Dominican Republic swim team,’ and the Olympics just finished in 2012,” Clark said.
Clark joked with the man, saying that her daughter is a swimmer and wants to swim for the Dominican Republic in the 2016 Olympics.
“He goes, ‘oh really, what’s her best stroke?’ I told him, then he said, ‘what’s her best time?’ I told him. Then, he goes, ‘that would be a national record here,’” Clark said.
The man asked for contact information. Clark said she didn’t believe anything would come out of it, but “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“So I gave him her name and number and three weeks later we got an email with an all-expense-paid invitation to return in a couple of months to swim at a meet in November 2012.”
The family went down to the meet, were invited back to nationals in May 2013 and then again in June for the Central American Caribbean Games in Costa Rica.
At the Carribean games, Rivas met a coach from the Florida Gulf Coast University. She introduced herself and told him she would be competing in the 2013 World Swimming Championships – representing the Dominican Republic – in Barcelona.
At the championships, she set two national records for the Dominican Republic and the coach offered her an official visit to the school.
Rivas is now finishing her degree in psychology at Florida Gulf Coast University – with the help of a swimming scholarship – and is a division one National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) swimmer.
“It’s been a really cool opportunity. When I first started doing it, I didn’t realize what it was all about, and the gravity of the experience and opportunity,” said Rivas, who is going to celebrate her 21st birthday at the next world championships in Budapest, July 15-30.
“I’m going to the worlds a second time and it’s like, holy man!”
This time, she says, she will soak in the experience for all it’s worth.
“The first time I went I had just started swimming for the Dominican and it was sprung up on me… This time, I actually had to compete against people for the position in my country. I feel like I’ve earned it a bit more.”
Rivas, who holds the Dominican Republic national record for the 50-metre breaststroke (33.9 seconds) and 100m breaststroke (1.13.4), is deciding whether to pursue the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She missed the 2016 Olympics due to an injury.
She’s in her final year of studies but is considering getting her master’s. Her ability to complete in the 2020 Games will depend on her academic career, she said, adding that her studies are the priority.