As you can tell by the color of my hair, I am a few years older than you! But I’m part of the Genfest family just like you. The Genfests I attended in my youth had left an indelible mark in me. What did I learn from those experiences? Two things. Firstly, for me, coming from a little town in Abruzzo (Italy), each time I joined was like plunging into a global experience. Secondly, at the Genfest, I realized that we are protagonists of our own destiny: my future depended on me. Since then, I have been trying to focus on this in the pursuit of my ambitions, even those most complicated ones or those seemingly impossible to realize. This is what my wife Claudia and I have always tried to convey to our 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 that plan when there is no light out there. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, life’s events come together, they are intertwined. Though it’s not easy to find their right place, suddenly, the pieces can 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 was to host the Olympic Games a few months later. We were making plans and laying the foundations for our future family. Simon was on the way, and we were so happy and full of love and expectation.

We felt invincible. Then Simon was born, and his arrival aroused concern in us right from the start. We found out he was suffering from Hip Dysplasia and Coxa Vara. It meant a permanent disability which 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, Simon has had to undergo twelve surgeries: limb lengthening, hip correction procedures, and bone grafts to strengthen his weak femur neck. Each operation was followed by endless months in a cast that blocked him from the chest down.
During those long months in bed, Simon learned to draw, which was the only thing he could do while lying down. He loved to draw fish, especially sharks because of their power and speed, so much so that a close friend of ours nicknamed him Simon the “Shark.”

Simon the Shark Barlaam
Simon Barlaam

When he was in a cast up to his chest, we used to watch “Finding Nemo,” an animated movie, which was set in Australia. Simon, just like Nemo, had (and still has) one fin shorter than the other. I felt like Marlin, Nemo’s father in the film, who was anxious about his son’s future, and fearful about what might happen to him. But just like Marlin did with Nemo, at one point I realized that Simon could face the “ocean” on his own, without any fear, even though he had a shorter fin.

At a certain point, Simon started playing sports. Swimming was the only sport where he could move his muscles without the risk of breaking his crystal-like bone. He began to compete. A few years later, he started training with the Italian junior swimming team. Every day, after school, he would practice in the swimming pool for two and a half hours, and practice turned into five hours in the wake of the most important competitions. When he was 17, Simon competed at the Paralympic world championship held in Mexico City in December 2017, and won two gold medals, for the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events, and one silver and one bronze. They were considered the fastest records in swimming.

Now, exactly 16 years after our honeymoon, Simon is on an exchange student program in Australia and keeps training at the highest levels: that is why he is not here today. He keeps practicing, studying, and competing with the best Australian swimmers at Sydney’s Olympic Aquatic Centre, in the same place where Claudia and I had taken him before he was even born.

Well, if someone had predicted to me a few years ago that one day I would have a son who would be twice world champion, I would have told them that they were crazy! One of Simon’s fins is smaller, yet 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 will 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.”

Riccardo Barlaam

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