When Juliana Silva’s family first moved to New Tampa, she didn’t speak a word of English; all she understood was her love of the water.
“I’ve been in a pool since I was four,” says Juliana, now 17 and a former student at Benito Middle School and both Wharton and Wiregrass Ranch high schools.
Currently, Juliana lives in Moraga, CA, just outside of San Francisco, where she trains full-time with the U.S. Junior National Synchronized Swim Team.
After nine years on the Tampa YMCA Stingrays (TYS) competitive “synchro” team at the New Tampa facility, Juliana has her sights set on the ultimate prize: a 2024 Olympic gold medal.
“Juliana came to the Stingrays as an eager-to-learn, naturally athletic eight-year-old,” says TYS Head Coach Camille Albrecht, 30, who has sent several students to the national team.
Since Juliana didn’t understand English at the time, Albrecht would use hand motions to demonstrate the correct techniques.
“She picked up all the synchro words and English very quickly,” said Albrecht, who described Juliana as a “joy to coach, always cheering everyone else on.”
Although Juliana was born in Indianapolis, IN, her family (mother Susana Barrios, father Rafael Silva and brother Leo Silva) moved to Venezuela and Colombia shortly after, returning to the U.S. in 2011.
“I’d always heard that Tampa was a great city,” says Susana. “Before we moved here, I visited friends who lived right across the street from Hunter’s Green, and I totally fell in love with the area.”
Athleticism comes naturally to Juliana. Her brother, now 19, started soccer at five, and their father was a former amateur champion and professional tennis player.
All Juliana wanted to do at first was stay home, so her mother decided to get her out of the house by signing Juliana up for swim classes at the Y.
“She looked at me on the way to that first class and said, ‘Okay Mom, I’m going to try this once, but if I don’t like it, I’m not going to do it,’” Susana says.
A month later, Juliana began training with Albrecht, kickstarting her dreams of Olympic gold.
Building A Track Record Of Excellence
At age 14, Silva placed sixth in her very first Regional “zone” meet, qualifying her for the National meet. It took three attempts to make the junior national team, which she did by placing 16th in the nation.
“Before that, I was hard on myself,” Juliana says. “I told myself I’d never make it, that this was just for fun. But making it to Nationals was an eye-opener.”
Susana says she began saving money for the pricey gear required for her daughter’s national competitions, including single swimsuits that could cost $200 apiece. She served her daughter meals and did her laundry while Juliana powered through a grueling training schedule, before and after school and on weekends.
“My mom supports me to the max,” Juliana says. “She’s the one who’s always pushed me to do this — the reason I joined synchro in the first place is because she was tired of me being in bed, watching Netflix and getting fat!”
In California, Juliana trains from 7 a.m.-3 p.m. every day except Sunday and spends four hours each evening online for academic classes.
“It’s like a robot routine,” admits Juliana, who lives with two other teammates and a host family in California. “You wake up, eat breakfast, train, shower, do homework, eat dinner and repeat. If I lay in bed in the morning and think about it too much, I won’t get up.”
Juliana also says that if she hadn’t struggled to qualify for Nationals at first, she would never have made it this far.
“My numbers, and knowing I could do better, motivated me,” she says. “Just wanting this won’t get you anywhere. You have to put in the action.”
Juliana’s team will begin its Olympic training after the Junior World Championships in August, as the team members aim for Paris 2024.
Susana, who graduated law school at 22, encouraged her daughter to pursue her Olympic dreams and return to college later, reasoning that Juliana will still be plenty young when she “retires” from competitive swimming.
“I don’t want synchro to be my whole life, because when I retire, I want a career to back me up so I have somewhere to go,” says Juliana, a high school junior who’s interested in forensic science.
She says she misses everything about Tampa, especially her family and friends, her own bed, and the “heat and humid air,” which she says is easier on her eczema, a skin condition that she says is aggravated by swimming in chlorinated water.
“My kids are truly Floridians, and we all think of Tampa as home,” Susana says. “Everyone here was so supportive and friendly when we moved in; my kids were invited to sleepovers a week later.”
Susana says that she will always be grateful for the New Tampa community and particularly the New Tampa YMCA, which twice assisted Juliana via the Y’s Open Doors sliding scale program, without which lessons would have been unaffordable for the family.
When a spot on the national team opened up, Juliana’s family had one week to decide if she would take it.
“I told her it was her decision, and she told me, ‘Mom, I’m ready, I’m going,’” says Susana. “When I realized she’d be in a big city without me, I struggled, and of course, I miss her. We’re very close, she’s my baby. But I’m happy.”
Truly One Of Our Own!
Juliana says she is very excited about the possibility of one day representing New Tampa in the Olympics.
“When I got here it was unreal; it took me a while to realize that I’m actually here, that I made it, that this is my spot,” she says. “It feels amazing to know that you have a lot of people supporting you and even looking up to you.”
Susana says she remembers watching, along with Juliana and her grandmother, Michael Phelps’ family celebrate his victory in the 2016 Olympic Games.
“Juliana turned to her grandmother and asked her if she was ready, and my mother asked, ‘Ready for what?’ And Juliana said, ‘That’s gonna be you, I’m gonna take you to the Olympics!’”
“If my daughter says she’s going to the Olympics,” Susana continued, “she will be there.”
For more information about the Tampa YMCA Stingrays, visit TampaYMCA.org or call Camille Albrecht at (813) 785-7092.