Ana Caterina Azevedo was brought up believing she could do anything. Feisty and outspoken, the dark-haired Brazilian native is the South American and national record-holder in the 50 and 100 backstrokes. And on the eve of her retirement, at 27, she has a lot to say about women's swimming in Brazil.
"I've always been very political in a way," she says. "I've never seen any reason why I shouldn't have the same rights as a man, and why women's swimming shouldn't be as developed as the men's. But we've been neglected. We're never given the chance to go to meets."
Unfortunate but true, for cultural, political and financial reasons, women's swimming has been given little credence in Brazil, and their results are testimony: in Seoul the Brazilian Olympic swim team counted 5 women - the first female swimmers to go to an Olympic Games in 12 years. Their best finish was 17 th place in the 50 freestyle.
"In Brazil we have the problem of the macho culture," says Azevedo matter-of-factly. "Instead of considering the experience they might have gained, the women were always perceived as a failure at the Olympics."
By 1992 it was back to the drought, and no women were selected to go to Barcelona. Azevedo herself missed the 100 backstroke cut by 3/10 of a second, although her time would have made the B final.
Slightly more encouraging was the fact that Brazil took advantage of being at home to send a large team to the World Short Course Championships in Rio de Janeiro in 1995. "But," Azevedo says, "the girls were terrified. They had so little international experience. I felt sorry for them." Only two Brazilian women actually made it to an A final in Rio.
Azevedo continued training in 1996 and once more, missed the Olympic team. Gabrielle Rose, a Brazilian born in the United States, was the only woman to represent Brazil in Atlanta. Rose finished 6 th in the B final of the 100 butterfly, having set a national record of 1:01.22 in the heats. She was 22nd in the 200 individual medley (2:18.99), and 23rd in the 100 freestyle (NR 57.16).
Having always been up against the paternalistic politics of Brazilian Swimming, Azevedo feels obliged to pass on her experience in the hope of changing the odds for women. "The guys are given a far better chance to develop," she says, "and yet they ask us to perform at the same level. We had very hard cuts. We're not asking for them to make it easy, just for fairness based on our reality. Let's develop from here."
With her engaging expression, Azevedo describes some of the obstacles faced by female athletes in a male dominated catholic society.
"They tell you that if you work out you'll be unfeminine and unattractive to men. The attitude of having to please the man is still there," she says ruefully. Then, laughing, "I've always been more competitive and tough than cute!"
The problem exists on all levels, making it difficult for Brazilian girls to excel in positive conditions. Unless blessed with a force of will and the necessary resources, "coaches put you aside, they don't try to bring out the competitor in you...It's changing a little bit, but it's too slow."
So where did Azevedo get all her moxy? Born in Natal, Brazil, to a university professor and an engineer, she had what she calls "a stimulating upbringing."
At 16 she moved to Recife to swim, and when the time came she went to the United States to pursue both her swimming and her education. She studied Political Science and International Relations at Arizona State University, and after college, stayed on in the US to swim. She has competed in a variety of international competitions in Europe, including the Swimming World Cup in 1996 and 1997. Among others, Azevedo has trained with Lois Daigneault and, this year, with Michael Lohberg.
But Azevedo is not the type to gripe in vain. Fluent in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, she's not short of goals. Her partner, Eduardo Scherer, is a former tennis player and the brother of Brazilian swimming star Fernando Scherer. Together with Fernando, the pair have come up with a plan to put their collective experience and determination to work: they plan to open a swimming and tennis centre in Scherer's hometown of Florianopolis, an island city of 600,000 situated in southern Brazil. Azevedo got the idea after giving some motivational talks to young swimmers last year. "I saw the kids' eyes, the way they were drinking it up," she enthuses, "We've been brainstorming ever since."
The trio have been researching and organizing the structure of the centre. After seven years spent in the U.S., she and Scherer moved back to Brazil to be on site. In a courageous pooling of resources, they are starting from scratch, buying the land, building the pool and tennis courts. They are also looking for help from sponsors. So far there is no mention of a government contribution. They are hoping to open the swimming portion - the Fernando Scherer Swim Centre - by October 1997. A tall order indeed.
Azevedo speaks from the heart. "My goal is to change the mentality of young swimmers in Brazil and start a new generation of swimmers who think they can do it—especially the girls."
She goes on: "I want to teach them strokes, but also ethics, and how to think as a competitor. I want to teach them how to be winners."
The plan is to start with children ages 4-5, develop their strokes, and take them to a pre-team level by the age of 7-8.
"We're not ready for a team yet...Brazil doesn't have that mentality. (As far as the public are concerned) Brazil has two swimmers, Fernando Scherer and Gustavo Borges. The top gets a lot of money. Some of that money should be going to the base."
Azevedo is confident, and she radiates a compelling warmth.
"I'm very happy with what I've accomplished as a swimmer. I'm retiring very happy...and even though I never made it to the top I don't think I missed out on anything," she explains. "I've really enjoyed the process of becoming a world class swimmer. I think that as a society we are too results-oriented. The result goes away like that," she snaps her fingers, "but what you get out of it as a person never goes away. That's what I'm proud of."