A para swimmer from Italy and a mechanical engineering student, Simone Barlaam, went through 13 surgeries at a very young age. He found his love for swimming, but the journey was often a winding one. Going from nearly giving up his sport to coming back and making it to the Paralympic team – in this interview Simone shares why his dream is still to make it to the Paralympics in Tokyo and what other aspirations and talents aside from the sport he has.
Hi, Simone. Let’s start with introducing you to the YouthTime audience.
Hi everyone, I am Simone Barlaam, I am a para swimmer from Italy. I am a seven-time world champion and four-time European champion. I also have five world records.
You are only 20 years old, but you have gained so many titles. Tell me about your love for swimming and how it developed?
The love for swimming and water in general… I think it has always been inside of me. As a kid I always loved sharks and all the sea creatures.
I just love that feeling of the water and the way it helps me to feel more graceful. When I walked outside of the water, I used to hobble all the way down to one side.
I am still not the most graceful person, but the water somehow smoothens that and I am grateful for it.
In 2015 I finally took swimming seriously, after I met my coach Massimiliano Tosin, and I started training with a group of people from my club.
At the time they were training for Rio 2016 Paralympics and here I was, this little guy under their guidance. But it got us to where we are now – just a few months from Tokyo – and it’s really cool.
On The Table
During your childhood, you went through 13 surgeries to correct your right leg. This is not a usual childhood and it sounds like a tough journey. Where did you gain all the strength from and what do you think this experience has taught you?
I think what helped me during my childhood was, first of all, my family and my friends. They were just always there for me – very supportive and loving.
It’s true that I have been through all these surgeries as a kid. But the simplicity of being a kid and seeing the world through that lens helped me.
Many things that happened to me back then would probably be way harder to handle now that I am an adult and that I am aware of everything. You know, as a kid you are just free, you are this free mind.
It helped me to become more resilient and to be ready to face any challenge that the future might bring my way. It definitely made me to become a strong man.
Your story is definitely the one of a true fighter. Some people get bitter when they go through difficult life situations, but you seem like such a life-loving person, your smile is infectious, where do you get all this positivity from?
I love life, and I think life is a rare privilege and gift that will not last forever and so we need to make the most of it, spreading love all over the world.
There is a quote from Oscar Wilde which says something like: ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist and that’s all’.
Also they say: ‘You should dream like you would live forever and you should live like you would die today.’ And this is the quote that represents the approach I think everyone should get for life.
Where do I get my positivity from? From my closest people, from things I love to do, but obviously I am not always happy.
I have my low moments as well. But the most important thing is not to allow those negative moments to win over you, hijacking all the rest.
Okay, so you became a Paralympic athlete at 15 years old, can you walk me through how it happened?
It’s true, I got to know the Paralympic movement when I was 15. Everything started from my dad. He is an Iron man, he completed forty marathons, many other triathlon events and he loves sport.
At the time he knew the head coach of Italian para-triathlon team and introduced me to him. I tried to do para-triathlon – I was very good in the water, alright on the bicycle and very bad at running, probably because I used to run using crutches.
And so my mum was like: ‘Why don’t you see if there is Paralympic swimming Federation?’.
So I went on the FINP website, which is Italian para-swimming federation and I got in contact with Max, who is currently my coach.
What is the hardest thing about being a swimmer in your opinion and why?
Oh, there are so many difficult aspects of being a swimmer. The daily life is probably the hardest. Swimming is the sport that really takes all your energy.
When you get home you just want to collapse in bed and spend the rest of your day there.
In my case, I study mechanical engineering and you need to study, constantly catching up on all the lectures you missed while swimming.
This is not easy, but this is what I like to do.
As Adam Peaty (British Olympic champion in swimming) once said: ‘These are not sacrifices, these are our choices.’ I made those choices and I am aware of their cost.
Obviously it is hard not to see your friends all the time, you can’t eat whatever you want but it is all worth it in the end – this is why we do it.
Speaking of the reasons to do it. What is the most gratifying thing about swimming?
The most gratifying moment, without a doubt, is when you make it to the podium. You feel like you gave it your 100% and you got the result you were hoping for – sometimes even better.
In the crowd, in the stands you can see your family and your friends clapping and cheering for you. For sure this must be the most gratifying moment for me.
I know that you also have an amazing talent – you love art and you started drawing when you were quite young… tell us more about it, please.
I love art and I always drew for as long as I can remember myself. Once as a kid I got into the hospital in France.
I was playing with my Nintendo DS to get distracted, but my heartrate was going too high as I was getting very excited about the game. All the nurses and doctors were alarmed about my heart rate.
Playing Nintendo games didn’t exactly help my heart – so they had to take it away from me. I had to find a more relaxed hobby, so I started drawing.
For me drawing is like a state of Nirvana, where you isolate yourself from the all the noises of the daily life – all the phone calls, daily messages and all the stress.
It’s just me, the white piece of paper, the pen and my imagination. I couldn’t exercise so my imagination was saving me – I felt like a little Peter Pan and I threw all my emotions on the piece of paper.
Who inspires you in the world of sport and why?
A big inspiration for me in the world of sports was Kobe Bryant and his Mamba mentality. Also, my big inspiration is the group of guys I train with – I try to learn the best qualities from each one of them.
So many people in the Paralympic world amaze me – for example, South African para swimmer Natalie du Toit. She is one of the greatest athletes that this world gave life to.
What about outside of sports?
Outside of sports I follow a lot of artists, scientists, physicians etc. I have a lot of respect and admiration for these creative people. For example, Keith Haring or Banksy are my heroes, as well as Altan, who is such a brilliant Italian comics artist.
I love listening to the scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance, but if I had to speak about all the people that inspire me, we will run out of time and one interview just wouldn’t be enough (laughs).
Delay of the Games
You aim to make it to Tokyo Paralympic Games, how did you react when the Games were postponed for one more year?
To be honest, when I heard about Paralympic Games being postponed by one year, I felt a bit of a relief. I thought postponement of the Games is the best solution for the world right now.
I didn’t believe it was a good idea to just go ahead with Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, knowing what our world was facing at that moment.
As we can see now, most of the world is still not over COVID yet. Some athletes stopped training before and after the quarantine times, it was different for each country – so if Tokyo Games did happen and there was no extra time added to prepare, it would have made it uneven for some athletes.
Obviously, I was a bit upset but I try to see the glass half full and since I am also quite young I have one more year to get better. As my coach told me: ‘Now you get to do two Paralympic Games in three years, instead of four.’
So, there is definitely a positive way to see it.
Why making it to Paralympic Games is so important to you? Is it your biggest dream?
Yes, it is one of my biggest dreams but not the only one. It’s very important because it will be like a conclusion of our journey that started back in 2015.
As a paralympian, our goal, Tokyo 2020, moved far away, but now hopefully we’ll again approach it soon. It would be like the coronation of all the hard work we did, as well as unbelievable experience and honour to represent my country.
What other life goals and aspirations do you have?
One day I would love to be able to release a comic or illustrated book with my drawings, or even an animated movie.
This was my goal since I was very small and I still hope I can fulfil it one day, that would be amazing. I also hope I can get my mechanical engineering degree because it’s tough, but I look forward to getting it.
What advice can you give to your younger self?
I would say to my younger self to keep going and that everything I am doing will pay off. Don’t give up and don’t let negative, unproductive opinion to let you down.
2020 and Finding a Path
It’s been a challenging year for many people. How was it for you and what is the biggest lesson that you learned?
It has definitely been a challenging year for all of us. One thing I have learned (and I knew before, but now it is more clear than ever) is to never take anything for granted.
Also, in the past I was lazy and didn’t do many things and now I think: ‘Oh, I wish I could do those things.’
At the time I didn’t want to them because I thought they were boring. But now, being in lockdown, I haven’t seen my friends since March because I want to be safe for me and for them.
You really understand how important are certain things that normally you are taking for granted.
What can you tell all the young people out there who are confused and in search of their path?
It’s a good question because I was just one of these young people and maybe since I am at the University, I still can count myself as one.
The easiest advice I would give is to follow your passions. If you like something, pursue that road.
Do what your like with all your energy and surround yourself with positive people who love you and who are willing to support you.
You will understand who these people are simply by seeing who is with you during the difficult times.
At the peak of someone’s success it’s easy to be their friend but during challenging situations – that’s when your people really show up.
Pursue your dreams, do what you like with the people you love, treat people kindly and try to see the world in any person who is in front of you.
That’s how you can often understand the actions of the other people. Don’t be superficial and don’t be afraid to go deep into people and facts.
You can follow Simone Barlaam on Instagram and join him on his journey to Tokyo.
Photos: From the Archive of Simone Barlaam
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