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Olympic medalist reflects on empowering and educating young girls in Sri Lanka

In the middle of the night after a late-night dinner, my mom and I were walking through the jungles of Sri Lanka not entirely certain which way our hotel was. This, along with my mom giving an elephant a bath, was one of many moments of our trip that I will never forget. It was in the middle of summer and we were a bit lost trying to find our way. To our benefit, we had a general sense of where we were going but neither of us knew exactly which road to take to the hotel and we were without cell service or a WiFi connection. It was dark and I was increasingly anxious. I looked over to my mom who found the whole situation hilarious and started making jokes about packs of monkeys. She teased me about being scared of everything, a comment I took immediate offense to because, compared to her fearless nature, I know I have a basket full of completely irrational fears. In that moment, I once again saw how daring and adventurous my mom has always been and how her curiosity of the world is one of the many gifts she gave to her children.

I have reflected often on where my inner strength and competitive spirit first originated from. There is no doubt in my mind that it first came from my mom, Denai and from her mother, my grandmother Jeanann. Through example, they consistently showed me strength and courage heading into the unknown.

I was there to encourage them and empower them to pursue their wildest dreams. I explained that their journey all starts with an education and the belief that through education, the opportunities are endless. — Kim Vandenberg

Growing up with two brothers and a younger sister, I lived in a full house of active and strong-willed kids who barely ever sat still. Our childhood was filled with sports activities, music lessons, friends, family time, church, and school. In reflection, I’ve always admired the way my mom handled the stress of raising a tribe of energetic children while my dad was busy working in San Francisco. Without her example and her endless support, I would have never been able to make an Olympic team and travel the world by myself for the past decade and more. Whenever I would beat myself up for swimming bad times or missing an international team, my mom was always there to remind me that I gave my best that day, and that in itself is the definition of success.

Traveling to Sri Lanka with my mom to empower youth, specifically girls, is an experience that I will hold close to my heart forever. The impetus of our trip was to travel to six different cities and host eight swim events. We both got in the water with the kids to teach swim drills and share our knowledge of the sport while also offering them advice to follow their goals. I don’t remember the last time or if there ever was a time when I spent so much one-on-one time with my mom.

On one of the mornings of our trip, we traveled to a small village outside of Anuradhapura to meet a group of girls pursuing their secondary education through the support of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program. They had gathered for a life skills session, led by a Room to Read social mobilizer (a title used for the female mentors they employ), focused on the topic of overcoming obstacles. I spoke to the girls about my Olympic journey and all the hurdles I faced as a female athlete. One of the young students raised her hand to ask me a question: “Why are you here?” This was a solid question considering I flew across the world from New York to speak to her school and teach swim programs around the country. I began to explain that unfortunately we still live in a world where boys and girls, men and women, are not given the same opportunities nor are they treated equally. I told her that I was there to encourage them and empower them to pursue their wildest dreams. I explained that their journey all starts with an education and the belief that through education, the opportunities are endless and they can create the lives they dream of. I asked them what they dreamed of, many of the young girls spoke of becoming teachers, doctors, and even writers. A few of the girls played sports but nearly everyone I spoke to knew exactly what that dream was for them and that was the most impactful moment of our trip – the power of sharing dreams with each other. The inspiration in their eyes and the opportunity to connect with others from around the globe was so powerful.

The lessons I learned from both my mom and my grandma were instrumental in my path towards the Olympic Games and beyond. Their never-ending curiosity of the world and their positive perspective during difficult setbacks inspired me during the many moments I wanted to give up on my dreams. I was close to giving up at many points in my life and remember saying to my mom, “I am so tired of being tired and disappointed all the time, I don’t care if I will make the Olympics or not.” She would gently remind me that, in fact, I did care and that I had been dreaming of that achievement for most of my young life. By gently encouraging me in my own pursuit of the Olympic Games, my mother and my father allowed me to find my voice and exercise my inner spirit. On International Day of the Girl, I want to give thanks to my parents and to my grandparents for giving me the gift of choice in my decisions and for providing the necessary support along the way.

My experience seeing Room to Read’s impact in Sri Lanka reminded me, more than ever, that the dreams of girls matter and they need strong role models in their communities cheering them on along the way. On International Day of the Girl, I wish for all girls to pour awareness into their passions, share their aspirations with one another, and create an ecosystem of support to champion these achievements.

Olympic medalist swimmer Kimberley Vandenberg is a member of the WSF Digital Contributor Team.