Meet Joanna Maranhão, Olympic Swimmer, Sex Ed Activist, and Survivor

This summer, Brazilian swimmer Joanna Maranhão will take center stage at the Olympic Games for the fourth time in her career in Rio (she competed at Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, and London 2012.)

“I spent a lot of time asking myself if I wanted to participate in the Olympic Games,” the 29-year-old Olympian told BBC Mundo in a recent interview. “Because I believe that you cannot think about building modern pools as a priority when there are people going hungry. But I didn’t want to give up something I loved to do, so I found a way to be an athlete and – at the same time – hold my position [standing in firm opposition to corruption in Brazil].”

Maranhão’s determination and strength of character are not just evident in her activism; they come out in every aspect of her life. As a 17 year-old, she came in fifth in the 400m individual medley finals at Athens 2004. She also got seventh in the 3x200m freestyle and eleventh in the 200m individual medley. More recently – in April of 2015 – she broke the South American 4x200m freestyle relay record along with her teammates Manuella Lyrio, Larissa Oliveira, and Gabrielle Roncatto after coming out of a short retirement.

You would never guess that she has suffered from depression throughout, in large part a result of being sexually abused by her coach at age nine, at the very beginning of her prolific swimming career.

“When I spoke about the issue for the first time, I fell into a black hole. I couldn’t even look at the pool.”

“After I had my first kiss, I went a year without returning to kiss or look a boy in the face. I had a great fear of being alone in my room. I was in therapy for years and I could not speak. All of the sudden, I started dating a boy and began remembering. I told him and he asked me to seek help. When I spoke about the issue for the first time, I fell into a black hole. I couldn’t even look at the pool.”

The people we know and trust – a coach, in this particular case – can often end up being the ones who hurt us the most. The devastating truth is that what happened to Maranhão is not uncommon in the swimming world; one need not look past the sexual abuse scandals that plague the sport in the U.S. to become acutely aware of this cold hard truth.

But Maranhão’s resilience and refusal to remain silent on the issue have led to beautiful and important creations and accomplishments, the least of which are her Olympic achievements and the creation of her NGO, Infancia Libre.

Established in 2014, Infancia Libre serves to help children and adolescents who are victims of sexual violence. It does this primarily through sexual education, an especially vital and invaluable tool in Brazil, where sex ed is not required material in public schools.

“More important than exposing a pedophile is providing children with sex education,” Maranhão stated. “It is important to give a kid freedom, so that if abuse occurs, they know how to identify it. In my case, when he did it, I think it was wrong, I knew it was painful, but I didn’t know what it was.”

“More important than exposing a pedophile is providing children with sex education.”

Through Maranhão’s initiative, classes have been offered for both kids and professionals working with youth. Not only this, she’s had her name written in law; the “Joanna Maranhão Law” – put into effect in 2012 – states that the time for statutes of limitations starts when a victim turns 18, not when the crime is committed.

When asked to comment on Rio 2016 and her participation in the international competition on her home turf this summer, Maranhão said, “I believe that the fight against corruption starts with oneself.” It’s clear that through hardships and amazing feats alike, she’s always found admirable strength and resilience in herself. She is a woman worthy of all of our support. We certainly know who we’ll be cheering for in the pool come August.