By Chris Gionta
The Olympics are larger than life. The opening ceremony at every Olympic Games gathers the best athletes across the globe into one arena and features dance, vocal and light performances that have been in preparation for years.
Among the theatrics in the most recent Games was 18-year-old Springfield College junior, Mikaili Charlemagne. She represented her home country of Saint Lucia as she was competing in the 50 meter freestyle swim event.
“Going through all of that and walking the Opening Ceremonies was just an amazing experience,” said Charlemagne. “Being around the best of the best; being around so many countries was just so amazing.”
The health science major was not paralyzed by the grandeur of the Olympic formalities, as she made sure to interact with the stars of other countries before making the walk in Olympic Stadium with fellow members of the Saint Lucia team.
“One of the things we did before the Opening Ceremonies was trade pins,” said Charlemagne. “Each athlete has pins for their particular country and athletes traded their pins, so that’s something I found really fun; going up to people, asking them to trade pins and having short conversations.”
After that night, it was seven days of anticipation for her race to commence. She trained regularly in the days leading up to the 50 meter freestyle swim, while also adjusting her training schedule based on the time of day her race was going to be happening.
“My average day leading up to my event, I would go to practice, sometimes in the morning, but towards the end, I tried to train around the same time I would be swimming,” said Charlemagne.
As she focused on the task at hand, it was still difficult not to notice the company that surrounded her, especially from her sport.
“Also, at the dining hall you see [Olympic stars] a lot because everyone eats at that same dining hall,” said Charlemagne. “I think it was around two days before my race, I saw Caeleb Dressel a few places ahead of me in the line for food, and it was just so surreal.”
Outside of training, it was a lot of recovery and relaxation for Charlemagne, along with communicating with friends and family. Part of the daily routine was calling her mother, which was easier said than done due to the difference in time zones from Saint Lucia to Tokyo.
“It was so hard to work on calls because of the 13-hour difference,” said Charlemagne.
The day prior to her race, Springfield College held a flag raising ceremony in her honor, displaying Saint Lucia’s colors for all of Alden Street to see. This was to the Olympian’s complete surprise and satisfaction.
“I was very grateful for the support and attention that I got from Springfield. It’s actually something that reset my confidence a little bit,” said Charlemagne. “When I found out about the flag raising ceremony, it was via an email my coach sent to the team. The email was about information for the next season, and I’m reading it, and then he put the part about the flag raising ceremony and I’m like ‘Oh my goodness.’”
On July 30, it was competition day for the 18-year-old Saint Lucian. For a multitude of reasons this differed from all other previous competition days, but not just because of the implications. Unlike her races for Springfield, there were no teammates for her to cheer on before she, herself, competed, which made all the attention shift onto her.
“The only thing that was different was that I was more to myself to try and stay focused,” said Charlemagne. “At Springfield, I tend to cheer for my teammates and congratulate my teammates.”
This allowed for an unusual amount of isolation for Charlemagne, who remained unnerved despite being shone by the biggest spotlight.
“I was very focused and calm,” said Charlemagne. “I’m someone who performs best when I’m calm and not allowing my nerves to get the best of me, so I did a lot of work with my sports psychologist on coping mechanisms to shut out all the noise and all the activities and distractions going on.”
The Springfield swimmer ended up finishing second in her heat with a personal best time of 26.99 seconds. This performance stood out for Springfield swim coach John Taffe.
“Her time was faster than it had ever been by more than three tenths of a second, which is a lifetime in a very short event,” said Taffe. “So she’s showing good improvement for her future.
Despite this being the biggest moment of her young life, her first Olympics is just the beginning. Her athletic prime remains ahead of her, showing that she can improve upon her already impressive resume.
“I think she’s just starting to realize the potential she may have,” said Taffe. “It’ll be interesting to hear her perception of where she’s at moving ahead and moving forward…”
Charlemagne is aware of what may be in store for her as time passes on. Prior to the race, she stated, “I’m very grateful to be at these Games right now. I’m using it as a learning experience and a stepping stone for Paris 2024.”
Something special seems to be in store as Charlemagne already has an Olympic appearance under her belt, without being even halfway through her collegiate career. She will forever remember her experience in Tokyo, while also striving over the next three years to make sure she does it all again in Paris.