Finding your talent can sometimes happen by accident.
Swimmer Tucker Dupree, a three-time Paralympic medalist, found his niche in the pool when he was forced to sit through his older sister’s swim practices. As a 14-year-old high school freshman, the swim coach finally convinced Dupree to get in the pool since he was there every day anyway.
“It was the closest thing to drowning you could have witnessed,” Dupree joked. “I reluctantly joined the team being adamantly against Speedos, and I was the guy people clapped for at the end because it took me so long to finish.”
Swimming was squeezed in to Dupree’s schedule between indoor and outdoor soccer seasons. As a sophomore, he started swimming on a North Carolina club team, and from there, he began breaking able-bodied records in the pool.
Recruitments from colleges began pouring into Dupree.
But everything changed for him during his senior year.
“That’s when I lost my vision,” said Dupree. “I was 17 and didn't know what to do.”
The diagnosis of Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy would not slow Dupree though.
He started talking with now three-time track and field U.S. Paralympian Elexis Gillette, a visually impaired long jumper and runner, who went to the same rehabilitation center Dupree. Gillette introduced him to U.S. Paralympics.
In 2007, Dupree competed in his first international competition in Vancouver, Canada.
“Ever since I started swimming with U.S. Paralympics, it’s been a very fast-tracked journey,” Dupree said. “After I broke five American and Pan American records in 2007, I went to the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Trials and was put on the national team. Then it was straight to Beijing for the Paralympic Games.”
Dupree defined his Paralympic experience as an incredible avenue to showcase his ability, not disability.
Since, he has used the Paralympic Movement as a platform to swim in almost every continent. He won three medals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, silver in the men’s 100-meter backstroke and bronzes in the 50m freestyle and 100m freestyle, in the S12 and SB12 classifications.
“Both Games were very different but I would say, overall, Beijing was life-changing,” Dupree said. “I was 19, so the caliber of swimming against the best in the world while over 10,000 people watched from the stands was huge.”
Dupree had a rocky start in London, competing on the first day with an eight day gap until his next competition, which threw off his performance. But Dupree said the mindset of competition and being mentally checked in is what made all the difference in his competitions.
“I had to run with the momentum I had built up and channel all the surrounding energy to perform well,” Dupree said.
And he did.
He hopes to have the same types of performances leading to the next Games.
“I know what it’s like to not touch the wall first,” said Dupree. “I don’t want to settle, and being in such a great coaching environment helps me. Training is hard, but I love the phenomenal progress the human body can make.”
Even though he may hate training sessions that leave him breathless, Dupree admires the fact that this love-hate relationship with Paralympic swimming has allowed him to travel all whilst doing what he loves: competitive racing.
Training has only gotten tougher for Dupree as he transitioned from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., to Oakland University in Michigan. The OTC was difficult to leave, but Dupree believes Michigan will help him be more productive in his training.
“I’m surrounded my people who are better, faster than me, so I continue to push every day,” said Dupree. “Every training session counts.”
This year, various swimming events will also serve as training opportunities.
Next month, he is off to the Jimi Flowers Classic in Colorado Springs, which is held in honor of one of Dupree’s mentors. Flowers, who coached the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Team, died unexpectedly in a 2009 climbing accident.
The “bread and butter” event, the International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships, is in August in Montreal, Canada.
“I’ll also get to compete in able-bodied events here in Michigan, so that will be a great way to train at another level of competition.”
Dupree takes every opportunity to be a bridge between sighted and unsighted athletes. Having only 20-percent of his vision, he believes Paralympics and Paralympians need more recognition for all the abilities they possess.
“New talent can come out of the woodwork at any time, so there is constant development and progress,” said Dupree. “We just really need to get the sympathy factor out of the U.S.”
Dupree’s experience from competing in other countries is that people with disabilities are thought of more positively than they are in the United States. He believes that Paralympians deserve more credit for their accomplishments as athletes and less sympathy for being disabled.
Making public appearances, including at charity and community events, and taking speaking engagements are ways that he shares his story, which he hopes changes the perception of Paralympic athletes.
“The world wants to see [Paralympics] and their abilities, but the media just isn’t there yet. Being a medalist, you automatically inherit the ambassador aspect, and I enjoy every minute of it,” he said.
“It’s humbling to have someone invite you to an event just to be yourself. I see it as a chance to educate the public and put Paralympics back in their eyes.”
Promoting the Paralympic Movement while training and competing keeps Dupree on the go. But maintaining a healthy social life is something he feels is pertinent to his performance in the pool.
“A solid social life is a big piece of my life’s puzzle,” he said. “Eighty percent of your performance is mental, so a good mood and emotional stability plays a big part in how well I do.”
Golfing, listening to music, playing piano and spending time with friends and family are his key to swimming success. Dupree and his girlfriend also have ballroom dance lessons are on their calendar.
Time off is few and far between for Dupree, and when it comes along, he takes full advantage of it. While the Paralympic Games were still simmering in London, Dupree and his friend were packing their backpacks for a trip around central Europe.
“We went to nine countries in 29 days,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Putting himself out into the world has only made him more eager to prove himself in the upcoming competitions including the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
When given the chance, Dupree reiterates the way he lives his day-to-day life: choosing between what is right and what is easy. He says the right choice for him is getting up off the couch and diving into the water every day.
“Everyone has that choice. You have to grow up fast with overcoming adversity, but that is the true test of character.”