When Yuliana Mora took to the pool at Dubai’s Hamdan Sports Complex, all she had to worry about was her performance.
It was a far cry from her early days as a swimmer – when she shared the water in her native Costa Rica with crocodiles.
The 15-year-old took gold in the Special Olympics 400 metres freestyle swimming final on Friday.
“There is no swimming pool where she lives,” an official from the Costa Rican Special Olympics team said following her victory. “She trained in a river close to her house. Her parents helped her as there are crocodiles in it.
“First her parents would get into the river and check if there are crocodiles and only after all is clear they would let Yuliana in to do her training.”
After the teenager’s talent was spotted, she was given the opportunity to move from the crocodile-infested waters to the pool. She is now seen as one of Costa Rica’s best Special Olympians. The South American nation is represented by 34 athletes at this year’s games, competing in six sports.
“Yuliana represented her province, Puntarenas, in the national Special Olympics games and came first in the swimming competition and that’s how she came to represent her country,” the team official said. “She has been training for the past year in a swimming pool for this competition.”
After her stunning victory in Dubai, a tearful Yuliana dedicated her gold medal to her parents back home in Costa Rica.
She completed the 400m in just under seven minutes, 50 seconds. She was less than four seconds ahead of Ailen Martinez, a 14-year-old from Uruguay, who won the silver medal. Tryphena Rose Nicolai, a 23-year-old Australian, took bronze with a time of 8:22.
It will not be her last chance at glory. Yuliana is also competing in the 1500 metre and 800 metre freestyle races, to be held later this week.
*The National is working with young Special Olympics journalists Brendyn Monsorate, Bilal Hafeez and Christopher Swaminathan to tell the stories of athletes from across the games.