~ ‘The experience has fired up my competitive drive even more’ ~

Young Tatiana Illis can be proud of what many athletes only dream of doing: At the age of 17, she travelled across the world to participate in the World Championships of her chosen sport – swimming.

Having returned just days ago, Illis told The Weekender that she looks back at the 18th FINA World Championships – held in in Gwangju, South Korea, July 12 through 28 – as an incredible and transformational opportunity. She is already looking forward to further training in order to be able to participate in the 19th World Championships in Japan.

Illis started to swim at age three, with Carib Swim Team in Cole Bay – this, with the support and encouragement of her mother Peggy Bell, who recently doubled as her coach while in Korea.

A proud St. Maartener (five generations on her mother’s side and three on her father’s), Illis was a student at Milton Peters College for four years, until hurricane Irma struck. After that, she moved to Florida with her sisters, in order to go to school and be able to swim on a higher competitive level with the Azura Aquatics team. She was nominated to represent the island by St. Maarten Aquatic Federation.

Tatiana, when did you know that swimming would be more than a hobby?

I don’t remember a time when it was just recreation. My mother pointed my sister and me in that direction and we thrived. We always looked forward to the small meets and open water events, like swimming from pier to pier. Our times kept improving and we just eased into competitive swimming.

How did you get into this specific competition?

FINA (The World Aquatics Federation) allows for smaller countries to have the experience of their competition through invitation. As guests, we can’t medal in the event (if we do win). I was nominated by the island's aquatics federation to attend and represent this year.

Did you ever think you would compete in Asia?

The competition location changes annually (kind of like the Olympics), I guess I was fortunate to be eligible the year that it was held in Korea. It’s a personal goal to travel, so I’m thankful that I was able to combine being an athlete with being a tourist.

We stayed longer to do some sightseeing. We visited a temple and a cultural event and walked around the city; but no, I never imagined travelling that far to compete.

How did you prepare, and who travelled with you?

I was the only athlete from St. Maarten to go; I was fortunate to have my mother go with me. She handled the required paperwork and meetings, etc., and doubled as a coach by keeping me on track with my swim schedule which was supplied by my swim coach.

My aunt Priscilla Bell, and sisters Saskia and Niobi also made the trip and supported me from the stands.

Preparation for this event has been long in the making. I train/swim at least six days a week consistently. I also work out regularly (yoga, running, weightlifting).

By the time eligibility notices are made, you literally have a couple months to prepare for travel, so the focus then is on fine-tuning and not overdoing the trainings. There isn’t time to change what you do; you have to trust that what you have done will get you through the process.

What are your first and lasting impressions of the trip?

The size of the event was jaw dropping, as well as how well organised it was. There were pristine schedules, volunteers to help at every turn, and many available resources for the athletes' every need. Everything flowed seamlessly.

The size of the pools was definitely impressive. It’s one thing to swim 50m by completing a few laps in your pool, it’s different when it’s one stretch with no turns needed. I was definitely intimidated by the competition in the beginning.

These are the fastest people in the world and the opportunity to compete at a level that high was astounding. It was also nice to see other Caribbean nations represented, such as St. Kitts, Grenada, Aruba, Curaçao, Jamaica, Haiti and St. Vincent.

Would it be fair to say this experience has changed you?

Absolutely! I was able to receive critical diagnosis of my swimming, allowing me to see my strengths and weaknesses in the pool. It’s easier to correct problems when you can see them.

The experience has fired up my competitive drive even more. I can see the bridge that I need to cross in order to reach the front of the line. I have the necessary tools and I’m ready to get back to training.

What were the outcomes?

I improved my swimming time in both events that I participated in: The women’s 50-metre butterfly, and 50-metre freestyle. Another outcome of my participation is that the St. Maarten Aquatic Federation is able to request funds from FINA to improve swimming here on the island.

What’s next? Do you have specific goals for the next few years?

I am heading to Nova Southeastern University [Florida] in September, where I will be majoring in Communication. In the meantime, I intend to keep up with my training and working towards being eligible for the 2021 FINA World Championships invitation, which will be held in Japan.

Special thanks to Carib Swim Team, St. Maarten Aquatic Federation, St. Maarten Lions Club, and financial/emotional support of family, especially grandparents, aunt Priscilla Bell and uncle Paul Bell.