AUBURN, Ala. – Swimming took Bahamian Olympian Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace off the island. Now, she hopes to help the sport take off on the island.
The former Auburn star is the lone female swimmer representing the Bahamas Olympic team in London, coming from a tiny nation where water play is largely the domain of tourists, not natives.
"It's really sad. We're surrounded by water, we're literally surrounded by water, and so many people don't know how to swim," Vanderpool-Wallace said. "I know there are a lot of initiatives out there trying to get Bahamians to learn how to swim. To them, it's just kind of a sport that's for people with money or really isn't for them so they tend to go towards basketball or track and field. It'd be really great to get people to realize that anybody can learn how to swim if they dedicate the time to it."
She knows that Olympic success is one way to shine the spotlight on her sport.
Algernon Cargill, president of the Bahamas Swimming Federation, estimates that 70 percent of the some 350,000 Bahamians can't swim more than 50 meters. No swimmer from the Bahamas has made the Olympic semifinals.
Cargill said the sport's popularity has increased significantly over the past 15 years, but that it has traditionally been regarded as an elite sport for private schools and the affluent.
Vanderpool-Wallace is already well-known at home. She's the first Bahamian to win a medal at a world swimming meet, taking third at the 2010 Short Course World Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Vanderpool-Wallace also became the first to make the finals at a long course swimming world championship with her seventh-place finish in the 50 free in Shanghai, China, last summer.
"She is by far the best-known swimmer in the Bahamas," Cargill said, adding she's "almost a household name."
He said if Vanderpool-Wallace even makes the finals "it would be a huge deal in the Bahamas." No Bahamian swimmer has made an Olympic semifinals.
Vanderpool-Wallace has aspirations beyond that, both in and out of the pool.
"I want people to realize that swimming is definitely a possible sport that you can do," Vanderpool-Wallace said. "I know that if I was to win a medal, it would open it up to a lot more people that, 'Hey I can do that.' That's definitely in the back of my head a little bit, but I think that my accomplishments so far have kind of gotten people there. I hope that whatever I do will help motivate people a little bit more."
She won the NCAA's 100 freestyle the past two years and the 50 free in 2011, finishing third as a senior.
Vanderpool-Wallace and Natalie Coughlin are the only women to break 47 seconds in the 50 free. She owns 10 Bahamian national records, including relays.
She just managed to crack the top 30 in both the 50 and 100 free as a teenager at the Beijing Olympics. Since then, she's become a 25-time All-American and won 13 Southeastern Conference titles.
Her coach, Auburn's Brett Hawke, compares her situation to that of another of his swimmers. Brazilian Cesar Celio took gold in the 50 free and bronze in the 100 free in the Beijing Olympics.
"He was ranked in the top 15 in the world and there wasn't very many people talking about him before the Games," Hawke said. "But we knew his abilities and the reason we were going, and I think it's a very similar situation. Arianna's in a position where she can shock a few people. We're really just focusing on being her best, and we know if she's at her best, that will be good enough to contend."
Vanderpool-Wallace followed her mother, Tietchka, a former record-holding swimmer who initially served as her coach, into the sport. Her father had been more into track and field and soccer as a youth.
Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace said he got his first indication of his daughter's talents when as a 9-year-old she won her first 100 free race from lane seven. Three years later, he said, she broke a Caribbean record in the 200 free.
The now-retired Minister of Tourism went online to compare her times against swimmers from Victoria Swimming in Australia to see for himself how good she was. The group has produced numerous Olympians, including Hawke in 2004, and she measured up well.
"That was when I recognized that her progress was remarkable," Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace said. Arianna didn't fully dedicate herself to the sport until age 15, when she moved to Florida to attend The Bolles School.
She still attracted scant attention from college recruiters until her senior season.
"To end up at a well-known sprint school is one of those things you just put down to a kind of destiny," Hawke said. "She was in the right places at the right time for her. She's really thrived in this environment."
Hawke said it's fairly uncommon for swimmers at this level to fully commit themselves to the sport as late as 15. He thinks Vanderpool-Wallace still has considerable untapped potential.
"She gets better every year," he said. "She really doesn't know how good she can be. That's something that we're just continuing to explore. That's why we really haven't set limits on what she can do. We're really just shooting just to be at her best. Her best could even surprise us. That's what we're hoping for."