Swimming in the Sunshine State
Interview was conducted in Turkish.
December 13, 2020
Before the Race:
Kaan Orhan (‘22) leans down into the pool, cups his hands around the water, and sips a bit of the chlorine-laced water on the surface.
Kaan’s race routine of drinking the chlorinated perfume of the pool only began six years ago.
He started swimming at 10– the age that many children play hide and seek with their friends or learn to obey traffic signals. “One of my biggest regrets is not starting swimming earlier.”
For Orhan, the green light signaling “go” for swimming did not come until this late age– most Olympic-desiring swimmers start at age seven or eight.
The late start into his swimming career only motivated Orhan more. At ten years old, he swam in categories of seven and eight year olds, but with years of training, Orhan caught up with the help of a beloved coach, Coach Aşkın.
Shifting his eyes down, Orhan admits Aşkın was his 3-year personal trainer…and hero. Because of him, Orhan became Turkey’s swimming champion, competed internationally in high level categories, and was able to join Turkey’s national swimming league. Orhan said, “Coach Aşkın saw the light in me.”
With nothing but an arsenal of Tuesday and Thursday practices in Turkey and a life’s supply of pruney fingers, Orhan fought his way to the top aided by the belief that if he wanted it enough, he would make it.
During the Race:
Orhan dives into cold waters with Turkey on his mind:
He said, “Before the race, when trying to come up with motivation for swimming, the first thing I think of is my nationalistic pride.”
On October 29th, Turkey’s first parliamentary democracy system was established after a war waged against European powers who wanted to control the Bosphorus Strait. Orhan states. “October 29th is the reason we can speak freely…I had the opportunity to grow up in a libertous environment.”
The existing Sultan’s government was overthrown by soldier-politician-activist-author-teacher Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in lieu of a public representation system. “He is one of the only people who has created an upward going government from a downfalling empire,” Orhan mused.
Now celebrated as “Republic Day” in Turkey, the holiday remains in the hearts and minds of many Turkish men and women…even in those temporarily separated from their country.
Atatürk’s “no cutting corners” attitude echoes in the worlds of Orhan. Just this year, Orhan moved to the United States for not the American dream really–the swimmer’s dream.
Orhan transferred to The Bolles School for the opportunities that being in a largely-respected swim team would bring. “Swimming is a tool for me. I need to swim to get into college”.
The only thing stopping Orhan from swimming professionally was an aged Turkish education system. In Turkey, he remembers taking fast-paced classes, but learning significantly slower. The 30-year old curriculum in Turkey is based on preparing high school students for one exam that is proctored once a year.
Compared to the American education system, Orhan remarked that classes in Turkey lacked presentations, essays, or projects, replacing them with a four-year exam preparation curriculum. Orhan says, “Tests after a point are completely pointless. It’s nothing more than stress. There is no life knowledge that comes with this curriculum.”
On top of the “bare bones” style curriculum, there are no large swimming leagues in Turkey.
Barriers to success cross his mind as both arms cut through the water at an exponentially rising pace.
During international competitions, especially, he ignites himself with thoughts of his country. “The person you are racing against is from another country. There is a different and unique feeling to [these races] because you know you are representing your country.”
Solely plastic disks of pool lanes separate him from Ukrainian, Slovenian, and German competitors. And nothing but a few strokes separates him from victory. His fingers reach towards the concrete of the opposite side of the pool.
Two breaths later, he touches the concrete along with 12-some competitors.
After the Race:
Orhan pulls himself out of the pool; no one offers him a hand. He exits the pool by himself— the same way he dived in. “I don’t swim for anyone, I swim for myself. I started swimming because I wanted to, I will continue swimming because I want to.”
Swimming reflects two of his most self-assured values: individualism and independence.
Three years ago, Orhan, born and raised in Izmir, flew for one of the first times to America by himself. Since then, America was on his mind.
Years later he found Bolles as one of the top ten swimming high schools. Of course, alumnus Olympians like Ryan Murphy (‘13) and Joseph Schooling (‘14) helped too (“Who wouldn’t want to go to the Olympics?”)
However, Orhan has many accomplishments of his own. Humbly, he admits he has been the 100 meter butterfly Turkish champion, has made the national Turkish swimming team four times, and has been top three in 200 meter butterfly in Turkey. “If you told me three years ago that I would be top three in swimming 200 meter butterfly or coming to America and getting an interview done for my accomplishments, I wouldn’t believe you.”
Exiting the pool, he hears not so much shouting fans as his coaches’ critiques.
But his biggest self acclaimed accomplishment is believing in future success. “My biggest accomplishment is to want it–to want success.”
In swimming, a single-person sport (“we all have different goals”), you enter and exit the pool the same way: by yourself. Orhan’s greatest pride is his independence and his love for swimming, arguably a one-person sport, reflects this: “There is a happiness that freedom brings”.
But Orhan is dependent upon one thing: the synergy and the desire of competitors and teammates. “Wanting something is how a journey starts.”