The wildcard: A Mount Holyoke swimmer’s Olympic journey

Photo courtesy of RJB Sports Photography  Laraiba Seibou ’21 represented her home country, Benin, in the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics.

Photo courtesy of RJB Sports Photography

Laraiba Seibou ’21 represented her home country, Benin, in the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics.

BY DEYSCHA SMITH ’19

Laraiba Seibou ’21 was swimming laps at the Niamey pool in Niger when the Niger National Head Coach, Dadouda Adamou, approached her mother, Michele. It was a hot, dry day, but the cool, chlorine-filled pool had become a place of comfort for her. Seibou is from the country of Benin, which borders Niger, a place with very few pools or swim teams and barely any female swimmers. Still, Seibou found herself drawn to the water and had access to the public pool in Niger’s capital.

She had not yet participated in a competitive match, but Adamou asked if the then 13-year-old wanted to be a part of a club team he was creating. It was a defining moment that has, since then, heavily impacted her athletic career.

Until now, Seibou has been hesitant to tell her story. Sitting in a conference room on the second floor of Blanchard Hall, she decided now was the time to open up. “I’ve never sat down and talked about this,” she admitted.

Adamou invited Seibu to join the Niger national team for the 2013 World Championship in Barcelona. While very few people showed an interest in competitive swimming in Niger, he saw potential in Seibou, despite her not having had proper training. “I was very confused,” she recalled.

Still, she swam. She competed in the 50-meter breaststroke in Spain, placing 74th. Her personal best score for the 50-meter freestyle (37.67 seconds) made an impression, and when Benin received a wildcard bid in the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics, Seibou was invited to join the team.

At the age of 15, she walked in the Opening Ceremony for her country, and heard the roars of the crowd cheering on the world’s greatest athletes. She remembered feeling confused and overwhelmed by the chaos of the event, not even waving to the crowd as she focused on following the instructions of the ceremony’s organizers.

Seibou had little time to be starstruck by what was going on around her in the fast-paced world of the Olympics, like warming up in the same lane as the U.S.’s Katie LeDecky, five-time Olympic gold medalist. Having only spent a few years in the pool, Seibou was sharing it with an icon on the biggest stage, but told herself to stay calm. “I was like, ‘oh my gosh, now swim,’” she remembered thinking.

Benin was only given one event: the 50-meter freestyle. The young swimmer, one of the only two women on her team, had to step up. She notched a time of 33.01 seconds in the second heat, just seconds behind the winner, Anastasiya Tyurina of Tajikistan (who clocked in at 31.15 seconds). While it was not enough to qualify for an additional round, it was a valiant effort by someone so young thrown into a whirlpool of the world’s best.

“I was a little stressed out, there were a lot of people, a lot of stuff happening. I was not used to meets, and I had all of these people watching me [swim],” Seibou recalled. As a young swimmer, she was just trying to take it all in, in and out of the pool. She was “too shy” to ask for autographs from other athletes and took few photos.

When she returned from Rio, she received a considerable amount of attention for her Olympic appearance, and came to be known as a wildcard of sorts. Her friends began introducing her as ‘the Olympian,’ and her school, Algoza School, posted about her on their Facebook page. It was a unique situation she felt most did not understand, and she worried people would assume things about her as an athlete, and a person.

“I was like, no attention please!” Seibou said, nervously laughing. “When you say, ‘I’ve been to the Olympics,’ people automatically assume, ‘you are so good’. It sets a really high bar for what [people] expect from me.”

However, Seibou desperately wanted to start her own journey, beyond Rio. After deciding she wanted to transfer from Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great

Barrington, Massachusetts, she toured Mount Holyoke’s campus last spring. “I took a tour with my uncle, and we went to [Kendall Sports and Dance Complex] because I wanted to see the pool,” said Seibou. Unfortunately, the pool was closed when she visited, but the Head Swim Coach, Dave Allen, offered to unlock it for her. “He showed me the pool [and] the weight room, and that was really nice,” she said.

After her visit to Kendall, she knew attending Mount Holyoke would provide her with new opportunities, such as her own training facility, access to a pool whenever she wanted and the ability to practice every day.

She remembered what her uncle said to her during that visit. “As we were having lunch, he said, ‘this is the place for you,’” and Seibou felt the same way. “I was like, ‘yeah’,” she said with a soft grin. “When I was transferring, I was looking at schools where I could be on the swim team. I wanted to swim.”

Mount Holyoke was the place where she could do so. Today, the swim team has given her the chance of being embraced by a team, rather than being thrown onto one. She’s been given the challenge of having to earn her spot and improve her swim times. She has practice every day for 2 hours and can swim in events that are new to her, like the 100 or 200-yard.

She is also trying to find a balance between her duties at home, and her new duties here in South Hadley. In December, she traveled to China to compete in the 100-meter freestyle and the 50-meter butterfly, as well as the 4x50 freestyle relay and the mixed medley race at the 2018 FINA World Swimming Short Course Championships for Benin. Right when she came back, the biochemistry major had to take a chemistry exam, and then hurried over to Kendall for practice.

The Lyons swim team has found success this season, and just last weekend, they beat Smith 156-143 during their home meet. Seibou competed, placing sixth in the 100-yard freestyle.

“Apparently I’m a very calming presence on the team,” Seibou said. She added that she hopes her past experience inspires others to set personal goals, even if they seem difficult to achieve.

She is particularly thankful for her head coach, Dave Allen. “He let me tell people on my own time,” she said. Though Seibou worried that her teammates would draw unwanted attention to her Olympic background, this did not end up being a problem.

“They got to know me first, [and when] they found out, they just accepted it,” she said.

Seibou may be an Olympian, but she is happy to be a Lyon now, too.