#Beyondme Special Report: Simone the Shark
At Genfest Italia, in the open-air amphitheater of the international town of Loppiano, journalist and writer Riccardo Barlaam tells the story of Simone “the shark” who, just like Nemo, was brave enough to spread his tiny fin and learned how to swim so well that he became a world champion.
I am Simone’s dad (I also have a daughter, Alice, who is in the audience) … As you can tell from my hair color, I am a few years older than you. But I am a member of the Genfest family just like you are. The Genfests I took part in when I was a kid have left their mark in me. I remember the Genfest at the Flaminio Stadium in Rome, in 1980. And then the international Genfest, amazing, with young people from every continent meeting at the Palaeur of Rome, in 1990. What have I retained from those experiences? Two things.
First of all: to me, coming from a little town in Abruzzo, each time was like plunging into a global experience. From local to global. Feeling like an open, world-wide person. A united world came to life in that small but big celebration. Since then, I have always felt like a world citizen.
Secondly: at the Genfest I realized we are the protagonists of our own destiny and that I decide my future. Since then, this is what I have been trying to stick to every day in my life to pursue my ambitions. Even the most complicated or seemingly impossible ones to achieve. This is what my wife Claudia and I have been trying to teach our two children.
I like to think that there is a bigger plan for each one of us. The hard part is to turn on the light to be able to see the plan when there is no light out there. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, life’s events come together, they are intertwined, and it seems hard to find their right location but, suddenly, the pieces start falling into place.
In January 2000, Claudia and I were in Sydney, Australia, on our honeymoon and we were strolling through the brand-new Olympic park that would host the Olympic games in a few months. We were making plans and laying the foundations of our future family. Simone was on his way, and we were so happy and filled with love. We felt invincible. Then Simone was born, and his coming was troubled from the very beginning. The day he was born we found out he suffered from hip hypoplasia and coxa vara. That is, a permanent disability that was made worse by a fractured femur. Basically, one femur was about 15 centimeters shorter than the other, and it was as brittle as a piece of glass.
Over the years Simone had twelve surgeries: limb lengthening, hip correction procedures, bone grafts to strengthen his weak femur neck. Twelve operations that were followed by endless months in a cast that blocked him from the chest down. From here to here. Each time, everything would come crashing down.
During those long months in bed, Simone learned to draw, which was the only thing he could do while he was laying down. He loved to draw fish – especially sharks, for their power and speed: he used to know them all. He loved them so much that our dear friend Giuseppe Martinico, who lives in Naples now and many of you know, started calling him Simone the shark.
When he was in a cast up to his chest, we used to watch Nemo the movie, which takes place in Australia. Simone, just like Nemo, had (and still has) one fin that is shorter than the other.
I felt like Marlin, Nemo’s father. Anxious about his future. And filled with fear of what might happen to him. But just like Marlin did with Nemo, at some point I realized that Simone was able to face his “Ocean” on his own and reach Sidney harbor. With no fear. Even if he had a shorter fin. It wasn’t always easy. At some point Simone started playing sports. Swimming was the only sport where he could move his muscles without the risk of breaking his crystal-like bone.
Just like Nemo, or the sharks he loved to draw, water became his element; he started competing after some time. A few years later, he started training with the Italian junior swimming team in Milan. Every day, after school, he would practice in the swimming pool for two and a half hours.… Which turned into five hours before the most important competitions. He grew so much, to the point that when he was 17, in the last Paralympic world championship in Mexico City last December, Simone won two gold medals, in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events (the races you have just watched), and one silver and one bronze.
The 50- and 100-meter freestyle events are the fastest races in swimming. They are like the 100-meter in track-and-field.
Now, exactly 16 years after our honeymoon, Simone is a twelfth-grade exchange student in Australia and keeps training at the highest level: that is why he is not here with you. He keeps practicing, studying, and competing with the best Australian swimmers at Sydney’s Olympic Aquatic Center, in the same place where Claudia and I had taken him before he was even born.
Well, if someone had told me a few years ago that one day I would have a son who would be a two-time world champion, I would have told that person he/she was crazy. Not even in the most fanciful and romanticized story could have we conjured such a happy ending.
Simone is a cheerful and friendly kid, with lots of interests. His disability is a problem only in the eyes of the beholder. Sports have taught him that if you have a goal, with hard work and determination you can achieve it.
A friend of mine, Enzo Bianchi, a monk and a writer, a few weeks ago tweeted this statement that really struck me: “In this last few days I have met and, mostly, listened to many youths who are ridden with fear. I told each one of them: ‘Your wings are way stronger than you think, you must find the courage to spread them and fly away!’”.
One of Simone’s fins is smaller but stronger than we all thought it would be. He had the courage to spread it and fly away.
My wish for you is that you all spread your wings too. I urge you to be brave. And learn how to fly… Follow your passions. Work hard to get where you want to be. Don’t settle for less.
As Walt Disney used to say: “If you can dream it, you can do it”.
You have to create the beauty that is inside you. You can bring it to life.