Twenty-eight years after winning a silver medal for the United States in the 1984 Olympics, former swimmer Michele Richardson de Ahlers is returning to the summer Games under a different flag: the blue-and-white standard of Nicaragua.
Ms. Richardson will lead Nicaragua’s seven-athlete delegation in the July 27 opening ceremony of the 2012 London Games. It will be Richardson’s first trip to the Olympics since her medal-winning performance in Los Angeles, and the first time she’s allowed to represent her native country on the international sporting stage. She was previously denied this opportunity by the Sandinista government.
“To go to the Olympics representing the country where I was born and the country where my children were born is a dream come true,” says Richardson who left for London early yesterday morning.
“I can’t even believe that I am getting this opportunity to represent Nicaragua at the opening ceremony and to carry the flag. I’m absolutely in shock about it, and I’m very happy and honored at the same time.”
Born in Nicaragua to American parents, Richardson lived here in Managua for 10 years before her family moved to Miami after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution. Despite living in the US, she wanted the opportunity to represent her native land in the 1982 Pan American Games. Her father, a member of Nicaragua’s Olympic Committee in the 1970s, wrote a letter to the Sandinista government to ask if she could represent Nicaragua in the international games. But government officials rejected the petition for the 12-year-old swimming prodigy, saying she represented the “bourgeoisie,” which was meant as an insult from the Marxist revolutionary government.
A year later, Richardson’s father tried again to see if his daughter, who at the age of 14 had the fastest time in the world in the 1,500-meter women’s freestyle, could represent Nicaragua in the 1984 Olympics. Again his request was dismissed by the country’s Sandinista leaders.
Instead, Richardson tried out for the US Olympic team, made the cut by three-hundredths of a second, and went on to win the silver medal in the 800-meter freestyle. At the age of 15, she was the youngest member of the US swim team and was the first Nicaraguan to ever win a medal in the Olympics.
The Sandinista government, meanwhile, sent only one athlete – a runner – to represent Nicaragua in the 1984 Summer Games. His performance was less memorable.
“I was the happiest Olympian on the US team that year,” Richardson says. “I was proud to represent the United States, but at the same time there was a lot of controversy about why I didn’t go to represent Nicaragua, for whatever political reasons.”
Now, even President Daniel Ortega recognizes that it was a mistake not to send Richardson to represent Nicaragua.
“It was an error not to enlist her,” Mr. Ortega said at the modest sendoff ceremony for Nicaragua’s 2012 Olympic team on July 22. “Thank God she qualified for the US team, but in her heart carried the Nicaraguan flag.”
Ortega congratulated this year’s young team of Nicaraguan Olympians and extended high praise for Richardson.
“Michele Richardson is a source of pride for Nicaragua,” Ortega said.
Proud to be Nicaraguan
For Richardson, who moved back to Nicaragua with her husband 17 years ago, the ceremony will be a celebration of her Nicaraguan nationalism – something she was denied 28 years ago. But any previous hard feelings are now in the past, she says.
“I don’t hold anything against Nicaragua for not sending me to the Olympics … in 1984,” she says. “I give thanks to the US for giving me the opportunity to go for the United States. It was a blessing, and I learned a lot. It made me stronger. It made me the person that I am.”
Unfortunately for Nicaragua, Richardson is not the only Nicaraguan to win Olympic glory under another country’s flag. Claudia Poll, Costa Rica’s only Olympic gold medalist, was born in Nicaragua but brought home the hardware for the Ticos. And Taekwondo champion Steven López, born to Nicaraguan emigrants in the United States, won Olympic gold medals for the US in 2000 and 2004 and a bronze in 2008.
Nicaragua, meanwhile, hasn’t won an Olympic medal since 1968.
Performance under pressure
Richardson says she is proud to be a mentor to the Nicaraguan Olympians in London, and is particularly happy that two of them are swimmers. Nicaragua will be represented by swimmers Dalia Torres and Omar Núñez; runners Gabriel Cuadra, Edgard Cortez, and Ingred Narváez; weightlifter Lucía Castañeda; and boxer Osmar Bravo.
“What I told the team is that you go to the Olympics for the experience, and you go to learn how to be a great athlete and a good person,” Richardson says. “It’s about living in the moment. These athletes are going to be extremely excited to participate. It’s not about the medals.”
For Richardson, living in the moment at the London Olympics is bound to be an emotional and nostalgic experience, she says.
“All these emotions are coming to me that I wasn’t expecting,” she says. “Carrying the Nicaraguan flag will make me cry. There are no words for the emotions I feel; when a country asks you to do this… all I can say is that it’s an honor. It’s an honor.”
It will also be nerve-racking.
“I am going to be so nervous. I hope my muscles don’t tense up, or I fall on my face, or drop the flag,” she says.
If Richardson’s last trip to the Olympics was any indication of her performance under pressure on the world stage, she should be just fine.
– A version of this article appears on the author’s website, www.nicaraguadispatch.com