Two Seconds Too Late

After barely qualifying for the Rio 2016 Olympics, this Zambian swimmer still keeps her Olympic dreams alive in this story sponsored by GE. 

Lusaka— Tilka Paljk is a nineteen year old Zambian swimmer. But, she is no ordinary Zambian in so many ways. Shortly after being born in Postonia, Slovenia, she travelled with her mother to see her grandmother in the Central Province of Zambia, deep in the heart of Lenje Land. “That was the beginning of my love affair with Zambia and nineteen years on, that love has continued to blossom” she says. “Many people question my obsession with this African country but I guess love is inexplicable. It is not to be defined or understood but felt and is deeper than the overt displays of affection visible to the human eye.” Tilka says the reason she chose to swim for Zambia instead of Italy or Slovenia is based on her parentage. Tilka is now accustomed to the scrutiny that arises whenever she mentions that she is from Zambia. However, she maintains that one’s skin pigmentation should not define their heritage and she does not let it define her. “I am a daughter of the soil, a Lenje, a Zambian but most of all I am Tilka Paljk,” saying it with a sense of pride. 

Tilka and Kumaren Naidu as team captains holding Zambian flag at Africa Junior Championships.

From time in memorial, Tilka has loved to swim, considering it symbiotic with her life. She admits that swimming is something she considers as commonplace as walking. Even when she was drafted into the Zambia National Swimming team at the age of eleven she never thought much of it. Of course that singular honor to don the national colors and represent Zambia at the highest level was excitable. That aside, she took it as an opportunity to do what she loved and going into her first race she did not fathom the possibility of winning any medals. Surprisingly, she came out second and behold her eureka moment…the sudden realization of her innate potential. Thus a pastime, turned into a sport. Swimming would take this Lenje girl across the globe to places that even the mind could not conjure, and elevate her to unfathomable heights. From world championships to commonwealth games. “As much as I enjoyed these excursions, I always yearned to return home to share my experiences abroad with my people, in addition to the medals. When I swam it was as if a breath of life had been breathed into me.” she said. However, the tide would soon change…bringing with it trying times that would push Tilka beyond her wits and change her life forever. 

“Growing up, my mother was my everything. My strength, my motivation and my reason for being. Tilka goes on “so when I discovered that she had been diagnosed with cancer I was gutted. It was as if my life had stopped and anger drenched over my existence. I would have traded all the silver and gold just to save her life because without her, my medals were worthless.” Questions lingered in her mind birthing even more questions. What had she done to deserve such a heavy punishment? The cancer began to have a toll of the family, draining them physically, mentally and financially. With the high cost of cancer treatment there was no surplus funds to finance her swimming. But instead of breaking her resolve, it would strengthen her.  She pushed to train harder and harder not only for herself, but for her mother. Swimming provided a sanctuary and seemed to be a panacea for Tilka to the extent that she began to believe that it could save her mother.  But it did not. On May 21, 2014 Tilka’s mother passed away, at Seattle Grace Hospital in Seattle, Washington, USA when it happened. “That night was the worst night of my life as I sat sleepless keeping a watchful eye over her,” she said. She found herself reminiscing on her mother’s first night in hospital and the moment that her mother held her close saying “Tilly, I have been suffering for four years, I think it is time I rested.” Tilka watched helplessly as her mother stared into nothing and struggled to breathe.  Her breaths became more and more sporadic until there was no breath left in her. She was gone. “When my mother died it is as if I died. Many thought that I would not get back into the pool and compete in the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games but were they wrong. I returned with a vengeance, deciding to fight cancer the only way I knew how, in the pool. Cancer might have killed my mother’s body but definitely not her soul and most definitely not my spirit.” she added.

Tilka with her mother at Cana Zone 3 and 4 in Zambia after 200m Breaststroke

However, returning to the pool was not easy for Tilka and at first she felt like a fish out of water in the water, which was rather paradoxical. This time she did not swim for people or prizes but for Tilka. It paid off for her.  In the season following her mother’s death, she was named Zambia's best swimmer. However, just when she thought that she was getting back on track, life would throw her a curve ball. The Rio 2016 Olympics which seemed so near, slipped away. “Two seconds. Two seconds. That is what reiterated in my head,” she told me. “I missed my last chance to qualify for the Olympics in the 100 meters breaststroke by two seconds. First my mother, and now the dream of an appearance at the Olympics has died.” She recalls her eye sockets being so filled with tears she couldn’t see as she repeated “I failed you mum”. Tilka’s entire life was planned around this moment which was gone forever. 

Now a few weeks after Olympic trials Tilka sees it differently, “it was not my time.” She is determined to get back in the water and make her own waves at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. In the meantime, she spends her time between the gym and library as she eagerly trains for the 13th FINA World Swimming Championships in Windsor in December and works on completing her high school degree at TuksSport High School in Pretoria, South Africa.

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