The XXIII Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games was inaugurated July 19 in Barranquilla with a colorful fanfare that had traditional dances from the Colombian coast and concert by hometown superstar Shakira. There are 6,000 athletes competing from 37 countries in a host of disciplines, including football, diving, bowling, fencing, and weightlifting.

Running parallel to the games in Barranquilla is the UANA Pan American Masters Championships in Orlando, Florida, where the YMCA Aquatic Center is hosting the swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, water polo, and open water swimming competitions. The event began on July 25 and ends August 12.

The City Paper contributor and television journalist, Olga Helena Fernández participated this week in these games as an official representative of Colombia’s synchronized swim team. In her category of 50-59 years, she received bronze for both her technical and artistic routines.

Speaking to The City Paper from Orlando, Olga Helena explains that she began training as a swimmer when she was five years old. “My mother made me swim,” says Olga Helena, laughing. “But I soon realized that I preferred synchronized swimming.” At that time the only city to offer this sport was Cali. However, determination won, and Olga Helena managed not only to find a coach in Bogotá but also persuaded eight other girls to make a team with her. Traveling to Cali every school vacation to train, Olga Helena represented both Bogotá and Colombia up until she was twenty years old. In subsequent years, she coached several teams; eventually becoming a judge.

Having left the sport more than 20 years ago, Olga Helena was surprised when an ex-coach called her up to participate as a soloist at this year’s Pan American Masters Championships. “At first I was a bit worried because I would only have five months to train, compared to the other girls who have been training for two years. But after the second day of training I realized that even though it’s going to be difficult, I knew I could do it.”

Despite several setbacks regarding permission to train at local pools in Bogotá, Olga Helena was fully prepared when she competed at the Championship this week.

“After a lot of frustration, tears, effort and a lot of muscle pain, I did it. I never imagined that I would go back to swimming, even less to compete,” says Olga Helena. “Thanks to everyone who supported me. I am very happy.”

Along with Olga Helena, several other Colombian synchronized swimmers had stellar aquatic performances. The 40-49 and 20-29 year category won silver and gold, respectively, for their duets. And teams representing 50-59 and 40-49 year category won gold and silver.

A heartfelt congratulations from the staff of The City Paper to Olga Helena and all swimmers representing Colombia in Orlando.