Eight years ago, Tucker Dupree was only 19 at the Paralympic Games in Beijing.
“Just a teenager,” he says. “Beijing chewed me up and spit me out, that’s for sure.”
Dupree laughs, but it wasn’t that bad. The swimmer from Raleigh, North Carolina — who had taken up the sport just four years earlier — swam six events and was top five in three: fourth in the 400-meter freestyle and fifth in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke.
Four years later he went to the London Games and came home with a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and bronze medals in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle.
At 27, Dupree is preparing to swim in the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials and earn a third trip to the Games in Rio de Janeiro. He looks around and sees he’s among the older athletes.
“Yeah, I think they give you a walker at 28,” he said.
But older doesn’t mean worse. Dupree believes this is his time. He’s ready for Rio and the shiny gold medals that will be up for grabs. He plans to swim the 50- and 100-meter free and the 100-meter backstroke.
“I’m ready to win and I know I can, so I’m ready to show that to the world and say, ‘This is my gold medal.’ That’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m ready to get on top of the podium.”
Back Home In North Carolina
First, he’ll have to earn his ticket to Rio at the Paralympic swimming trials in Charlotte, North Carolina, June 30-July 2. For Dupree, it will be a homecoming.
Dupree grew up in nearby Raleigh, took up swimming at 15 and joined a club team that often swam at the same venue where the trials will be held, the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center. He’ll have friends and family packed into the facility.
“It’s good to go back and see everyone who’s helped you in some way, shape or form. To share that moment with me is great,” he said.
And though he now lives in Chicago and spent recent training time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado — where he also was a resident athlete about two years — Dupree said he’s a Southern boy at heart and knows that being back home will be special.
“It is, hometown hero, whole thing,” Dupree said. “Just to go back and know that it all started in North Carolina.”
Dupree mostly played soccer and some basketball growing up, but his older sister was a swimmer and she drove them to school each day. He sometimes would sit in the stands and watch practice. A coach asked him to give it a try, but Dupree initially said no.
“I couldn’t wrap my mind around putting on that little, bitty swimsuit,” he recalls.
Eventually, though, he dived in. He wasn’t good at first.
“It was the closest thing to controlled drowning as possible,” he said.
But he found it challenging and soon he was passionate about it. He joined the club team, too, to swim more.
Losing His Sight
Just two years later, Dupree began to lose his eyesight because of a rare disease, Leber hereditary optic neuropathy. He’s lost about 80 percent of his vision since then, with just 20 percent remaining (all peripheral vision). As he describes it, the center of his vision field is black, with a border of light and color.
With his world suddenly changed, Dupree found refuge in the pool. There, he could still train, be with his friends and swim very well, even if he had to make some adjustments. He could no longer see the timing clock or the gestures of his coaches. Coaches had to get him out of the pool and show him, physically, how to improve his stroke or techniques. He counts his strokes to know how close he is to the wall and uses his sliver of vision to see the lane ropes.
“Having it as a constant in my life is actually what kept me sane,” he said of swimming.
Then, when he discovered Paralympic swimming, he could take swimming to a higher level (he competes in the S12 classification for vision-impaired athletes).
Dupree has won multiple medals over three IPC Swimming World Championships (two silver, six bronze), set world records and been ranked No. 1 in the world in his class. He says he’s been blessed to be able to continue swimming.
Also, doctors have told him he could lose the last of his sight at any time.
“For me, I enjoy the fact that I can still see some,” he said. “I cherish every part of that because my life changed overnight and it could happen again. Living every day like it’s your last is so important. I’ve gotten to go to 18 different countries, been able to swim on almost every continent in the world, with like 20 percent vision. That’s why I was given this as well, to show people what you can do with it.”
When he steps out onto the deck at the trials and, hopefully, at Rio de Janeiro later this year, Dupree said the people in the stands will have no way of knowing how much work he and the other swimmers have put in. In 2012, he logged every workout, and he said it translated to 3,600 hours of training for 21 minutes of racing at London.
“We get showcased every four years,” he said. “But it’s every day for us.”
And that little, bitty swimsuit he never wanted to wear?
“It’s basically my work uniform every day,” he said.
The U.S. Paralympic Team Trials – Swimming and Track & Field will be held June 30 – July 2 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and are hosted by Partners for Parks. Thanks to support from The Coca-Cola Company and BP, the multi-sport Trials will host more than 400 athletes who will compete for a chance to qualify for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit USParalympics.org/2016TeamTrials
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.