Wynter soaks in Olympic experience in Rio

USC sophomore swimmer Tim Wynter’s Rio 2016 Olympics lasted just two days after the Opening Ceremony.

Despite falling short of the semifinals representing Jamaica in the 100-meter backstroke — his only race — the 20-year-old was not disappointed in the least by his Olympic debut.

“I wasn’t expecting to make the semifinals,” Wynter said. “It was my first Olympics, and I’m just happy to have qualified. I was just happy to be there.”

Wynter finished second in his heat, but his time wasn’t fast enough to advance. For a swimmer from Jamaica, though, simply being in the Olympics was an accomplishment.

Known for track and field, Jamaica sent 63 athletes to Rio de Janeiro — 59 of whom  were track and field athletes, and just two of whom were swimmers (Wynter and Alia Atkinson).

To make the Olympic roster, Wynter simply had to race against the clock, since Jamaica doesn’t have a big enough swimming contingency to hold qualifying races like those in the United States. On his first try, he came up just 0.02 seconds short.

“Devastated is probably too strong of a word, but I was unhappy that I was so close,” he said.

He got it the second time around in the Caribbean Islands Swimming Championships.

“I wouldn’t say I was surprised because I had put in the work to get the time, but I was just super excited,” Wynter said.

Wynter grew up in Jamaica and started swimming competitively when he was 5. He learned to swim when he was 2 years old because his family was moving to a new place that had a swimming pool and wanted him to understand water safety. Little did they know that would kick-start an Olympic swimming career.

He ranks among Jamaica’s top swimmers in history, holding six national and 21 National Age Group records before even coming to USC. But Wynter, who also occasionally competes in freestyle and butterfly, doesn’t care much for those accolades. He found out from a Jamaican reporter that he holds nearly every record in the country from the 11-12 age group to the national swimming record for the 1500-meter backstroke.

“I didn’t know that,” Wynter said. “It’s not something I think about, ever.”

Wynter moved to the United States at age 15, attending boarding school in Massachusetts. He acclimated well to a new country. Wynter, who speaks English with no discernible accent, said he watched American television shows in Jamaica and feels comfortable here.

He graduated high school in 2014, and took a gap year. He originally committed to Duke University, but rescinded his acceptance because he couldn’t see himself going to school in the South.

So he followed the sunshine to Los Angeles, playing a large role in his first season at USC. Already, he holds a top-10 time in school history in the 100-yard backstroke.

Still just 20 years of age, Wynter made sure he soaked in all of Rio in the free time he had after he was eliminated, visiting Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain and Copacabana.

Though he admitted he didn’t get as much camera time as his Olympic cohorts in track, Wynter had the pleasure of walking out with Jamaica in the Opening Ceremony and interacting with his more well-known countrymen.

“[Walking the ceremony] was definitely one of the highlights of the Olympic experience,” he said. “I know of a lot of the bigger track names but I didn’t get to interact with them that much in other games. Everyone was super friendly within Jamaican athletics.”

Even Usain Bolt, who Wynter had a chance to meet a few times, was amicable. Wynter called Bolt “down-to-earth,” and said the fastest man in the world would lounge around with his teammates and was a “huge jokester.” 

Track may be king in Jamaica, but Wynter hopes swimming will grow as a sport in Jamaica, where track and field, cricket and soccer are the major attractions.

“I think there is room to grow for swimming in the sport,” he said. “We have a lot of talent in the island, and we have pretty good facilities. It’s not a sport that has a high participation compared to track and field or cricket. I think participation will hopefully grow by having two swimmers in the Olympics.”

He can be a part of the future if he makes the roster for the Tokyo Summer Games in 2020, though he admitted he hasn’t thought about the next Olympics yet.

For now, he’ll return to USC and gear up for the swim season. Sporting a shirt reading “USC Olympian,” Wynter said he was grateful to be a part of the school’s Olympic tradition.

“Just walking around this place, you can see Olympic flags and Olympians on the TV screen [in Heritage Hall],” he said. “It’s surreal that I’m walking in the footsteps of so many great athletes USC has developed.”