espnW: Natalie Coughlin
It may have taken me two days and six flights (SIX!) to reach Rwanda for my very first field visit as a Right to Play athlete ambassador, but the jam-packed four days I spent in Africa were well worth the travel craziness. During that time, I visited several schools, met some adorable children, saw the program curriculum in action and spent some quality time with local gorillas (no joke). More importantly, I was able to see firsthand who I had been supporting through my involvement with Right to Play.
I first heard of the nonprofit organization at the 2004 Athens Games from my suitemate, Jenny Thompson. She was collecting auction items for a Right to Play fundraiser. Four years later in Beijing, they had a program in place called "Hearts of Gold" through which Johnson & Johnson would make a contribution to RTP for every medal won. But there was a catch: You had to go to the RTP headquarters in the Olympic Village and sign a pledge of support for your medals to count. I may or may not have accosted other athletes in an effort to make them stop by and sign, ha! My six medals that year translated to $85,000 for Right to Play, and I knew I didn’t want to stop there.
When my agent mentioned the possibility of a field visit to Rwanda, I said yes right away. And by right away, I mean without even talking to my husband or my family first. I was all in from the very beginning.
We hit the ground running the second we arrived in Africa (water polo Olympian Heather Petri was traveling with me). Our group visited three or four schools each day, and without fail we were welcomed with big smiles, singing, and dancing. We were also met with shouts of “Mzungu! Mzungu!” which means white person. Blonde hair is definitely not something those kids see very often!
At some of the school stops, children would perform skits or speak about how Right to Play has affected their lives. At others, we got right into groups and started playing some of the RTP games. Even a simple game of tag can be geared toward teaching children certain survival skills, like how to avoid getting malaria. And statistics have proved the strategy is working.
One of the things that has stuck with me was how affectionate the kids were with someone they had just met. I would sit down on the ground, and they would immediately be crawling all over me. It was great! My digital camera was also a source of fascination. One by one, the children would ask me to take their picture. With little or no access to mirrors, many of them were seeing themselves for the first time on the camera screen. It’s amazing what we take for granted, right?
Our “gorilla trek” through the Rwandan bamboo forest was also quite an experience. In September, I swam in open water with great white sharks and somehow felt more comfortable than I did around those gorillas. They are unpredictable, not to mention huge and powerful. The idea was to stay at least 20 feet away from them, but by the end of our adventure, I had brushed up against a silverback and backed into another gorilla (whoops!). To top it all off, I actually got kicked by one of the babies. At one point I just told myself, “Whatever happens, happens!” I put my life in our guide’s hands, and luckily we emerged in one piece. On the plus side, I can now say I’ve been kicked by a gorilla. Yes!
My trip to Rwanda seemed like the longest week of my life, but it was also one of the best. No matter how dedicated a supporter you are of a cause, your perspective changes when you see things from the front lines. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to use my swimming background to help Right to Play accomplish its mission: “To use sport and play to educate and empower children and youth to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict, and disease in disadvantaged communities.”
Right to Play is an international organization dedicated to using sport and play to empower children and youth to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict, and disease in disadvantaged communities. Read more here.