The Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 will always be remembered by Costa Ricans as they were the first in which the country achieved an Olympic medal through swimmer Sylvia Poll, also being the first medalist from all of Central America in Olympic history.
The swimmer achieved the feat always dreamed of, winning silver in the 200-meter freestyle test. But she also won silver at the swimming world championships in the 50-meter backstroke during Melbourne 1991. Poll retired in 1994, with more than 600 medals in national, regional and world swimming competitions.
Her beloved adopted country
Reaching the elite took many years of sacrifice. She started swimming in 1979, recently arrived in Costa Rica at the age of eight from her native Nicaragua, of German parents and exiled to our land in 1979 due to the civil war in the neighboring country. “My parents had no plans to move away from Nicaragua permanently, it was going to be provisional, but it turned out to be for the rest of our lives. We were adopted in Costa Rica and I have no way of thanking the country that opened its arms to me”, says Poll.
From the Pool to the United Nations
When Sylvia left competitive swimming, she began a brilliant professional career that has led her to a global leadership at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), based in Geneva (Switzerland) and also an intense diplomatic career (she speaks four languages)as alternate ambassador of Costa Rica in Switzerland and the United Nations.
Sylvia is a clear example of breaking paradigms that state that because a person is an athlete they cannot be successful in anything else. She has been more of the conviction and thought that precisely because of the values that a high-performance athlete has, they are values of life, of work, that can be applied to any activity.
She says the following: “It’s going to be very rare that there are athletes who are defined 100% by talent. Whoever arrives at the Olympic Games, it is most likely that they have a very high degree of talent; but in the end what makes the difference is how much they trained, their mental strength, the values they have…”
For Sylvia, her passion for swimming began at a very early age. When Sylvia left the competitive circuit, she was almost 24 years old, having practiced swimming for almost three quarters of her life, because she started at the age of nine. People then asked her what she was going to do for the rest of her life, and she answered them: “I am going to continue swimming not to compete but now for personal satisfaction”, which she does to this day.
What her life example can teach Costa Rican girls and women:
She considers that as a woman it has been sport that shaped her, plus the values of her family, of her mother. But sport trained her in many things, it taught her that as a woman she could if an effort was made, and she worked very hard, trained very hard, she could achieve excellent goals and results.
Reducing the gender gap in STEM education
Sylvia reminds us how important it is to reduce the gender gap in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in Costa Rica.She affirms that “there are gaps in all the activities of human beings between men and women. In the area in which she currently works, a lot of advancement is being done on how to close the digital gap between men and women, and how women have more opportunities in technology positions, with many communication campaigns, with projects where girls are invited to consider studying careers that have to do with STEM and above all also remove prejudices because you have to have good communication and this should be a public policy issue, it is not just a matter of a company or of an organization, it should be a matter of national politics, that women are sometimes prejudiced with respect to certain careers, certain professions, sometimes it is believed that the issue of technology is only people who like to program or who are behind a computer day and night… And there are many careers in education, health, which have increasingly seen the need for digital applications, there are many opportunities and there are many sources of work around that”.
“If people don’t know about them, if they don’t understand that these opportunities exist, it’s very difficult. Communication campaigns are important, creating that awareness and this has a lot to do with parents, in schools, in educating that girls are as good in mathematics as men, and in engineering, in science, even the statistics say that when women go to the University they get better grades than men. It is to break many prejudices and paradigms”.
She continues: “It should be an effort not only for public policy, but also for other types of organizations. And I think that applies more and more. I think that women have been breaking down the barriers and saying that they can be in many economic activities and in many jobs and can reach many positions. All those opportunities must also be given to them.
Women supporting women
Another fundamental aspect is mentoring, about this aspect she mentions the following:“Women must be mentors for other women, to also give them those opportunities to continue growing. It is once again a matter of education, also of demonstrating the improvements in productivity, of the return on investment that there can be when it comes to having a greater diversity in the people who work and that includes women. And third, also ensuring that people have the necessary digital education to be able to use and benefit from services and technology”.
“Globally, regions are at different levels. In the case of Central America there are different levels of openness and competition and opportunities. There are always areas for improvement but it has to be based on those three pillars. You have to keep looking, see how women are given more opportunities”.
“So that what can be given is more than medium and long term.That women enter those careers that allow them to study what they long for: careers that have to do with the STEM professions. In Central America, in the area of technology there are still few and we are making efforts to encourage women to participate and take leadership roles so that when it comes to decision-making, more women participate. Efforts must continue to be made for encouraging that”, she concludes.