Julimar Avila’s voyage upstream is almost complete. For most of her 24 years, from the Huntington Avenue YMCA to Roslindale’s Flaherty Pool to Weston High to Boston University, and from Central America to Europe, Middle East, and Asia, she has splashed toward the coveted Olympic headwater. Later this month, Avila will swim in the 200-meter butterfly for Honduras at the Summer Games in Tokyo.
But a little over a year ago, after the pandemic postponed the Olympics and closed indoor pools, Avila despaired. She would need to train for at least another year, and she would need somewhere to swim. Walden Pond in Concord was open, she knew, yet the prospect filled her with dread.
“I’m not fond of swimming in bodies of water where I can’t see the bottom,” says Avila.
Walden Pond is iconic to both New England swimmers and American literature. Author Henry David Thoreau went there in the mid-19th century to find deep meaning in life. Avila went to exorcise a demon. A sea serpent.
She struggled with what is known to swimmers as “fear of open water.” It stems from not seeing what is below, not having lane lines to follow or walls to push off, and from bumping into the occasional fish or turtle.
According to Outdoor Swimmer magazine, symptoms “can typically include extreme anxiety, dread and feelings of panic such as shortness of breath, rapid breathing, sweating and nausea.”
Swimmers have reason to be wary. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation calls open-water swimming “an inherently dangerous activity” and advises swimmers to “use extreme caution . . . to prevent potentially tragic outcomes.”
“It’s a different kind of swimming, you have to lift your head up to see where you’re going, otherwise you can go in circles,” said Jim McLaughlin, who coached Avila at Weston.
Avila was a fish out of open water, so to speak, until she heard from an old friend and former teammate, Bianca Tocci.
“I was literally a lost puppy, and she was like, ‘Collect yourself, figure out your goals and what you want,’ ” recalled Avila. “I realized I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘What if?’ ”
So she took the plunge. Submerged her fear. Willed herself forward, stroke by stroke.
“This was the first time I swam open water for training,” Avila recalled. “I went with friends who had already been and then I introduced some other friends to come because I like swimming in open water in a group.”
Her former coach, McLaughlin, recalls being in Walden Pond when Avila and a pack of college swimmers went by.
“I was out there swimming with a friend,” said McLaughlin. “We’re two old guys and we see Julimar just blow by us. Whoosh! We said, ‘Whoa, what was that?’ "
Later, McLaughlin caught up with Avila on the beach, where they discussed the challenge, and reward, of open water.
“It’s very beautiful,” she says. “The water is fresh and you can see little fish. Really happy that I got over my fear.”
As her fear receded Avila would swim alone. On those occasions her father walked the Walden shoreline and kept an eye on his daughter. Which was nothing new. Avila’s parents, Julio and Marta, didn’t raise an Olympian by accident.
Julio immigrated from Honduras to Boston in the mid-1970s, excelled in soccer at Jeremiah Burke, and went on to star at UMass. After college, Julio coached at Boston English, became athletic director at Fenway High, and built a varsity program under the school’s first headmaster, Larry Myatt. Marta earned an engineering degree in Honduras, came to Boston after she met Julio, and became a math teacher at Umana Middle School.
Julio and Marta came to America, she said, “because of all the opportunities here. With hard work and discipline lots of doors can open.”
Julimar, named for both parents, was raised in Hyde Park. At six months her mother had her in a YMCA pool. She would try swimming, diving, gymnastics, soccer, and golf, but swimming became her favorite.
Starting in kindergarten, Avila became a Metco student in the affluent suburb of Weston. Not by coincidence did Weston have a strong swimming program. “We had some connections with Metco parents,” said Marta. “It was related to swimming . . . we wanted the best for Julimar.”
Avila was 8 when her father arranged for her dual Honduran/American citizenship. “The only way for her to swim and represent Honduras internationally was to have citizenship,” said Marta. “My husband was thinking about it, even then.”
By then Avila swam for the Delfines Sampedranos in Honduras, where she spent summers, as well as the Flaherty Dolphins in Roslindale. At 10 her father signed up Julimar with the Squids, a USA developmental team at Harvard. At 12 she jumped to the Bernal Gators at Bentley University in Waltham.
“We got up at 4 a.m. to get her to practice by 5,” recalled Julio. “A commitment. She didn’t mind getting up. It’s a 45-minute drive from Hyde Park to Waltham. I drove her until she was 17, when she got a car.”
Recalls Julimar: “If I wanted to skip practice in the morning my dad got me up. My parents, being immigrants, always worked hard and told me to shoot for goals. Not only in sports, but to be well-rounded.”
At Weston High Avila swam under venerated coach Claude Valle. She excelled in the 100 butterfly, swam on record-setting relay teams, and helped Weston win its first state title as a senior.
When not competing for Weston she swam for the Honduran national team and the Bernal Gators. The owner and coach of the Gators, Joseph Bernal, was banned for life by USA Swimming in 2016 for violation of sexual misconduct policies. Avila says she had no knowledge of Bernal’s misconduct: “When it came to light I was in shock.”
An honors student at Weston, Avila went to BU in 2015 on a partial scholarship. Her coach, Valle, wrote a recommendation: “Commuting to a wealthy suburban school system is not easy; there are subtle and not-so-subtle social pressures from both Boston and Weston peers . . . Julimar’s commitment to what she takes on is amazing.”
Describing her socialization, Avila says: “I saw myself as a swimmer, not labeled as a Black or Latino swimmer, just representing my club and team the best I can.” She adds that swimming among a diverse population at city pools shaped her self-image. “I’ve always identified as Latina and Honduran,” says Avila.
At BU, Avila received first-team All-Patriot League honors as a freshman and senior and was team captain as a senior. BU’s associate head coach , Jen Strasburger, recalls that Avila was “helpful to teammates, willing to try a lot of events, and hard-working to a fault; she can push herself too far.”
Avila graduated in 2019 with a degree in human physiology and enrolled for post-graduate studies while she trained for the 2020 Summer Games. In February 2020 she went to Florida to intensify her training but then returned to Boston because of the pandemic.
A few agonized months passed on dryland, until her aforementioned self-reckoning at Walden Pond, as well as South Boston’s Pleasure Bay. When the pandemic receded and indoor pools reopened, Avila resumed training in Florida with a club of Olympic-bound swimmers from several countries. She swam at the Puerto Rico International in May, and notched her fastest-ever 200 butterfly, 2:18.38. But she was nearly three seconds slower at the Central American and Caribbean Championships in June.
The Summer Games likely will crown her competitive career, Avila says, after which she will pursue a graduate degree in healthcare management. Honduras never has medaled in swimming, and she is realistic about her chances.
“Obviously I would love to win gold, as a kid you dream,” Avila says. “But just representing my country, as best I can, is one of the best accomplishments I could want.”
Even as Tokyo beckoned Avila’s thoughts were on Walden Pond in early July when the state DCR banned open-water swimming because of a spate of drownings at various locations. A fellow swimmer, Matthew Hrabchak, sent her a petition protesting the ban, and she gladly signed.
Walden Pond is in her heart, she said, and not because she read Thoreau’s thick prose as a BU student. “It showed me that I was able to overcome my fear of open water in order to train and keep the feel of the water,” Avila said. “And that I truly did miss swimming once it was taken away.”
Steve Marantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org