By Zach Breeding, Editor
The sheer impossibility of finding another person in the same situation as Gilson Nyrimana is a better opener than any that I could ever think of. The statistic I searched so long for is athletes who have zero experience in a sport walking onto their college’s team and being able to compete. Up until late in the second semester of his freshman year, Nyrimana had never swam extensively. It was then that he registered with the NCAA and began training doubles with the McKendree swim team, a top 15 team in the nation.
Nyrimana is from a Kigali, Rwanda, a small country that many only know exists because of the genocide which occurred there. Even more interesting to note is that the country does not have a national swim team except for the one person they send to the Olympics to represent the country each year. Looking at this background it makes very little sense why someone from this country would join a college program. Nyrimana was one of very few international students on campus who was not a McKendree athlete, and he obviously wasn’t a fan of this. So, when approached by hallmates of his Cole Morgan and Matthew Meals, both members of the swim team who suggested that it would be “funny as hell if you joined the swim team,” Nyrimana replied: “bet,” another way of saying why not, and emailed the coach. After a bit prodding from some of the student leadership of the fledgling swim team, Coach Jimmy Tierney agreed to allow him to train and compete in the upcoming season.
Starting training was very rough for Nyrimana:“I went from doing literally nothing all day to swimming for four hours most days,” he says. This change was mostly facilitated by former swim team member Josh Lamb who Nyrimana credits as his first true coach. When Josh noticed he was unable to keep up with the practices as well as do two of the four required strokes in swimming, he took Nyrimana under his wing and put him through a month-long boot camp to teach him how to become a swimmer, something that usually takes up an entire adolescence. Within the month, Nyrimana was able to do all four strokes and complete entire practices with a team that has elite swimmers who have swam with the likes of Chad Le Clos, Nathan Adrian, and even Ryan Lochte. “The sets I did during that month are still the hardest thing that I have ever done,” says Nyrimana of his time in his own personal hell.
Nyrimana had his very first competition with the McK swim team at the Louisville invitational in October of 2017. He finished dead last. He would continue to finish in this position until a meet in late November where he beat people that were disqualified from an event due to illegal underwaters. But this is not a mark of shame for Nyrimana; the people that he is competing against have been competing for their entire lives while at that point he had only been spending extensive amounts of time with the water for a total of four months. Nyrimana proceeded to drop about 15 seconds of time in his best event over the course of the season, ending the year with a 1:15 in the 100 breaststroke at the conference meet in February. Not only is dropping that much time over the course of a single season unheard of, that time also would have put him ahead of two other swimmers at the Bearcats first meet from October.
Nyrimana continues to train with the McKendree swim team through the offseason, which he calls a “cruel joke” as most of the training stays the exact same as during the regular season, and is looking forward to being back in action at the Bearcats first meet in October of next year.