Alejandro Solana/ Staff Writer
Since the graduation of Jerica Coley, Panther fans have been devoted to finding a new star to get behind here at FIU. Replacing the greatness that was “Holey Coley” is no easy task, but if anyone can live up to the challenge, it’s a 19-year-old Olympian.
Redshirt freshman Naomi Ruele is a swimmer for the FIU swimming and diving team. Because the swimming and diving team is not one of the “big three” sports, football, baseball or basketball, it seems that the successes of this team and several others here at FIU are constantly overlooked.
Naomi Ruele was born in Gaborone, Botswana, a relatively mid-sized country located in the African continent, bordered by South Africa to the south, Zimbabwe to the northeast and Namibia to the west and north.
The African nation is home to just over two million inhabitants, very few of which are swimmers. So how does a young athlete from Botswana get into swimming?
Ruele said she competed in many sports at a young age, but it was swimming that stood out to her and which she really excelled at.
The strong relationship Ruele built with her swim coach, she said, ultimately was one of the biggest factors that led her to pursue the sport.
“I went into a lot of sports, track and netball, but I really liked swimming and I got along very well with my coach. He wanted to bring me closer to the sport and I really believed in his vision.”
Swimming with the Panthers this season, Ruele took home seven first-place medals at the Conference-USA championships. As great as that sounds, it sounds even better knowing that seven events is the most an athlete can compete in at the C-USA games. Ruele did as well as she possibly could given the rules of the tournament, going home with a winning percentage of 100.
“Going into the Conference tournament, we were not ranked first in most of our relays, so we did not expect to win them all. I can’t say I expected to go seven-for-seven but I was so happy when it happened,” Ruele said. “It showed how all the hard work has paid off.”
The relays Ruele spoke of are the four relay events she swam with her teammates, whom she did not fail to credit.
“A lot of my success I credit to my teammates. I would never have gotten this far without their support and of course their performances alongside me.”
Along with her teammates and coaches, Ruele credits most of her success to her family. Specifically, her mother, who Naomi says, “sacrificed so much for me. I am so grateful for her and everything she has given me. And my brother who always supports me.”
Seven gold medals and C-USA swimmer of the tournament in 2016, multiple school records which she broke swimming for the Panthers this season and an appearance in the NCAA Championships are all defining moments for the native of Botswana; however, none come close to what she says is the most memorable of her career thus far.
“Qualifying for Rio 2016. Definitely,” said Ruele, with an affirming head nod and giant smile, which is expected coming from a 19-year-old who just a year ago was sidelined due to a shoulder surgery.
Ruele will be swimming in the official Olympic games this summer, representing Botswana. Only one athlete has ever medaled while representing the African nation, 800 meters silver medalist Nijel Amos four years ago in London.
By recording a time of 26.07 during an official Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) approved time trial, Ruele will have the chance to become the first even woman medalist for her native country of Botswana and only the second ever.
“I’m really excited. My initial goal was just to make the Olympics so now that I have done that, I can shift my goals to different aspects these next few months,” Ruele said. “I am excited to be able to compete for Botswana and it would be a huge feat to bring home a medal.”
Prior to FIU, Ruele competed in the South African games and the Youth Olympic games in Nanjing, China, which she says will surely help her in preparation for the Rio 2016 games.
“Nanjing was one of my first international competitions, and was very overwhelming,” Ruele said. “It taught me a lot that so much goes into being at the top. There are so many sacrifices that must be made and I now know which sacrifices I have to make. It was a learning experience, for sure.”
Ruele made sure to mention that her performance at nationals is something that should be noted as she works towards preparation for the Olympics. Naomi placed 51st at the national tournament this year representing the Panthers, swimming in the 50 free prelims.
As far as her time in Miami, Ruele notes that Wynwood is her favorite part of the city. “I love Wynwood, it is so much fun.”
Naomi did not deny that adjusting from Africa to the United States was not easy, but that it was only a matter of time before Miami was a second home to her. Maybe it was the pools here, or maybe the Cuban food.
“I really loved fried Plantains. Those are bomb,” Ruele said. “I also tried fried Oreos for the first time a few months ago and they are now my favorite American food and easily the greatest thing I have ever tried. I could eat those every single day.”
The most surprising part of the interview was when Ruele insisted that Miami summers trump anything Botswana has to offer. “The humidity here is crazy. It is so hot,” Ruele said. “I tell you, Africa is hot, but not this hot. Summers in Miami, Wow. They don’t compare.”
One thing is certain, If Ruele continues to swim this well, she will have no problem staying cool this summer.