Black History Month: Jamaican Olympian Alia Atkinson on Her Fourth Olympic Journey

Black History Month: Jamaican Olympian Alia Atkinson on Her Fourth Olympic Journey

By Stafford Braxton//USA Swimming Communications Intern  | Friday, February 19, 2016

Qualifying for her first Olympic Games at the age of 15, Alia Atkinson is a force to be reckoned with in the pool. The Jamaican swimmer has represented her country on the Olympic level numerous times; at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic games. 

In addition to being a Big XII All-American, NCAA Champion, Olympic finalist and World Record Holder, she is active in the community in helping spread awareness of water safety to minorities. 

Atkinson has been swimming her entire life. She began her obsession with the sport, when her parents enrolled her in lessons at the local YMCA. 

“I started swimming when I was 3. Being from an island surrounded by water, Jamaica, my parents made sure that their children knew how to handle themselves in the water.” 

Having grown up where a majority of population is African-American and aware of the necessity for swim safety, the alarming statistics regarding minorities and the sport of swimming were not apparent to her. 

“When I swam in Jamaica, I didn't notice the color difference with the sport. It was after I migrated that I noticed,” Atkinson said. “People became very curious with me, about my body type, color of my skin with the sun, training regimen. It was not something I had experienced before.”

After moving to the sunshine state of Florida, Alia continued to excel in swimming attending Charles W. Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines. She would later join the Comets Swim Team. 
In 2004, she represented her home country of Jamaica in her first Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. 

“The Olympics was fantastic. It was a true experience that I still remember today,” she reminisced. “The athletes, the atmosphere, the intensity; it was all tremendous. I am grateful for the experience and 'trial run' as I see it, to help me for the next Olympics.” 

Following her experience in Athens, she dedicated herself to perfecting her craft and becoming the best student-athlete she could. By 2008, she had matured and was ready to represent Jamaica in her second Olympic Games in Beijing, China. 

She later attended Texas A & M University where she would become the 2010 NCAA champion in the women’s 200 yard breaststroke and a Big 12 All American. 

Additionally, she became the second African-American female to capture an NCAA Swimming title.
“The Aggies were a great choice for me. I wanted a school that had a great team atmosphere, work ethic and mature coaching staff. With the school's traditions and the small town feel, it made for a smooth transition from Jamaica and a close-knit family life, to a close-knit team.” 

In 2012, Atkinson truly made her splash at the London Olympic Games, placing fourth in the women’s 100 meter breaststroke. Atkinson tied for eighth with Candian Tera Van Beilen in prelims and was required to participate in a swim off for the final spot in championship heat. 

Atkinson touched the wall first, setting a new Jamaican record with a time of 1:06.79. In the final, she just missed the podium, placing fourth. 

Later that year, she would go on to win silver medals in the 50 and 100 breaststroke at the FINA World Short Course Swimming Championships in Istanbul, Turkey. 

Fast-forward to 2014 at the FINA Short Course World Championships in Doha, Qatar, Atkinson finished second in the 50 breaststroke. 

More history came her way when she out touched defending champion Ruta Meilutyte in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 1:02.36, setting a new world record and becoming the first black woman ever to win a world title. 

“It was surreal. At the moment I looked up at the scoreboard, I realized I had won and was elated. It was only after I walked out of the pool, I realized I had tied the World Record,” she reminisced. “It felt as if life had given me a break. Like all the work and dedication had meant something, because sometimes you don't get to see the result of your work.” 

Having broken so many barriers, not only for her home country of Jamaica, but for the African-American community in general, Atkins takes prides in representing both minorities. 

“Jamaica is not just the place of my birth, it is my make-up. The culture, my family, the food, the music, the people, the rhythm of the land, it is all within me and that's what I want to honor by representing my country.”

She strives to help diversify the sport of swimming through her accomplishments over the time of her career. Her goal is to increase to the amount of all races in the sport, not only African-Americans.

“Not necessarily a legacy, but I would like to help with the expansion of swimmers of all races, colors and religion. Right now my legacy is synonymous with profiling African-American/ 'black' swimmers in the sport of swimming, hopefully in the future it can evolve into something everyone can benefit from.”   

She has seen significant growth of the sport across minorities and continues to work clinics and speak to clubs emphasizing that swimming is not only a sport, but an important life skill.

“In the last decade I have seen a rapid increase of not just African-Americans but minorities in the sport of swimming. It really is a joyful feeling to see all the swimmers doing well in the sport and bringing awareness to swimming as a life skill not just a sport.” 

Her focus is now on the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. 

“My goals for this year, are to mentally and physically train myself for Rio. The goal is to give it my all, so when I am on the block at Olympics I, hopefully, will have no regrets.” 

While Alia focuses on her Olympic goals, it is not the only thing on her agenda. Aside from her swimming career, Atkinson works with the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a special project manager.

“Our last project, currently being distributed, is a children's book translated into six languages, to help educate water safety around the world.”  

Alia is enjoying the journey going into her fourth Olympic Games. While she is going for Gold, she finds it important to remember what lies inside of her. 

“Right now, one motto I live by is: 'What lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies within you.” 


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