PALM HARBOR — Maya Okuyama arrived from Brazil three months ago eager to encounter an American high school experience. To immerse herself in the culture, as well as gain new friends, Okuyama was required to sign up for an extracurricular activity.
The foreign exchange student did not excel in sports that required putting a ball in play. Okuyama thrived in the water — as a synchronized swimmer. So the Palm Harbor University junior decided to try out for the school’s renowned swim program.
For years, Okuyama’s pool activities consisted of performing routines synchronized to music. Teamwork was essential. So was stamina and breath control.
And Oyuyama did more than just participate. She starred, competing on Brazil’s national team. Now, she seemed more like a fish out of water.
Okuyama had a firm grasp of the freestyle stroke. The other strokes — breast, butterfly and back — were more foreign to her. The lack of knowledge was a serious setback when she competed in tryouts against more experienced swimmers.
This was just the second time Lisa Bitting ever had a foreign exchange student inquire about swimming in her 29 years as a coach.
Once in the pool, Okuyama turned lap after lap. Her freestyle stroke was smooth and effortless, her arms slipping slowly, quietly in the water.
Bitting saw plenty of potential. “Maya is just an athlete,” she said. “There was plenty there to work with.”
Making the team meant everything. Okuyama marveled at the facilities and the coaching.
“We do not have anything like this back home,” Okuyama said. “It’s hard to find places to practice in Brazil. Plus, I was happy being on the team because I was able to meet so many more people and make friends.”
Not that she needed much help. Okuyama blended in so well on the swim team, many thought she was a new student who arrived from another Pinellas County school rather than another country, said Wendy Harris, one of her host family members.
Still, there were other adjustments, the biggest being the heat when Okuyama arrived in August. There were also difficulties speaking English rather than her native Portugese.
She grasped that, too.
Within a month, Okuyama was moved into an honors English class. Now she’s even taking French to broaden her horizons.
“It’s amazing having a class with her because she was way more studious than most everyone else in there,” freshman swimmer Maria Candelora said of Okuyama. “She was already on top of everything. I was shocked at how well she adapted.”
Candelora and Okuyama became friends. They go to practice together. They both went to the Homecoming dance with other teammates, the first time Okuyama had attended a school dance.
Okuyama even took in a football game.
“I was confused,” she said. “I had no idea what was going on in football.”
In swimming, Okuyama was simply happy to be on the team. There were no nerves in her first meet, partly because she had no expectations.
Okuyama kept improving, so much that she is a vital part of the Hurricanes’ girls program. Last month, she finished second in both the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle events at the Pinellas County Athletic Conference meet, as well as swam legs on the first-place 200 free relay and second-place 400 free relay.
“Maya has been a gift from God,” Bitting said.
After spending months learning new strokes, Okuyama is teaching her new teammates moves in synchronized swimming.
“If we have time after practice, Maya will show us a few things,” Candelora said. “We try, but none of us are very good. Maya is amazing in it, just like in everything else.”
Okuyama will continue to do the freestyle strokes at the upcoming postseason meets.
Her introduction to swimming does not end there. She plans to keep training with Bitting’s club team in the offseason.
“I want to keep it going, maybe even swim in college,” Okuyama said. “I just want to keep swimming for the rest of my life.”