On Friday afternoon in the heats of the women's 50-meter freestyle event, women from Tajikistan to the Marshall Islands came all the way to the Olympic Aquatics Stadium to swim one length of the pool.
The 88 women represented 75 countries – actually, 76, except one athlete wasn't allowed to race under the Kuwaiti flag like she did at the 2012 London Games. The International Olympic Committee suspended Kuwait on October 27, 2015, and banned it from international competition "to protect the Olympic movement [there] from undue government interference." In turn, Kuwait sued the IOC for $1 billion in damages, but that's another story.
On Friday, in front of an appreciative crowd, Faye Sultan swam a personal best, set a Kuwaiti national record, won her heat, but could not wear her country's flag. Although Sultan missed the cut for the semifinals by 2.04 seconds, the 21-year-old Williams College graduate was satisfied with 54th place and said her 26.86-second swim "was a great time for me. I won my heat! I wasn't expecting that. It made me feel absolutely incredible."
Then, she said, "I turned around and saw my whole family and it brought me to tears."
Her mother, father Tarek (who played basketball at Williams) and older brother Ziad (who played tennis for U.C. Santa Barbara) were in the stands.
They remembered her natural affinity for water as a girl, and how she had to choose between swimming and ballet. They remembered how she used to swim with younger boys and girls, until Kuwaiti conservatives shut down a co-ed meet and segregated all swim teams by sex. They knew how, back home, the OIympic-sized pools were at the all-male sporting clubs, and how she had to train for the 2012 Olympics in a pool so shallow that her hands would hit the bottom. And how, in London, at 17, she became the first female swimmer to represent Kuwait. They also knew that she had improved dramatically after four years of collegiate swimming as a walk-on at a Division-III school.
Yet in early July, Sultan still didn't know if she had been selected to compete in Rio. She had assumed that the ban would be lifted in time for the Games, as an earlier ban on Kuwait had been lifted before London.
But on Aug. 2, Kuwait lost their appeal. Sultan would participate in Rio as part of the IOC's "Independent Olympic Athlete" team. The news was only a partial relief for Sultan.
In a phone interview at the time, she said, "It's crushing to be training for four-plus years and dedicate your life to sport and find out your country is suspended for something that you don't really have anything to do with – at least in my case. I feel like in the case of Kuwait, it could have been avoided."
Yet she had trained in Spain in June. She was training with her college coach in New York City in July. And now, in Brazil, here she was, thrilled to be racing – even if it wasn't in her national colors.
Instead, she said, looking down at a clump of lime-green Lycra in her hand after the race, "They gave me this...I don't know what to call it – 'beautiful?' cap." (She didn't get to pick the color.)
The Opening Ceremony was a bit generic, too, as the statuesque geoscience major marched behind the white IOC flag in a white zip-up turtleneck with the five Olympic rings on it. Still, she had a good time.
"It was only a three-person walkout squad," she recalled, which meant that the six other athletes on the makeshift team opted out of the parade of nations. "But it was nice because everyone was having fun."
And her swim on Friday offered redemption from what she considered to be a subpar senior season in college.
"I'm happy I got a chance to get back up there and race my heart out," she said.
Whether Tokyo 2020 is her next goal, she said, "One step at a time."