2016 Guatemalan Olympian Valerie Gruest has announced her retirement from competitive swimming.
In an emotional Instagram post, Gruest simultaneously announced her retirement, and shared her personal story of “psychological, physical and sexual abuse” growing up.
Gruest was already a Guatemalan international in high school, where she attended bilingual English-Spanish school Calle Verde Colegio in Guatemala. She arrived at Northwestern in the fall of 2016 with an Olympic berth already under her belt from Rio de Janeiro in 2016. At those Games, she was the youngest member of the Guatemalan Olympic team at 17-years old.
She finished 29th in the 400 free and 22nd in the 800 free in her Olympic debut. She retires as the long course National Record holder int he 200, 400, 800, and 1500 freestyles, as well as the 100 fly, 200 fly, 200 IM, and 400 IM. She is also a member of the National Record holding 400 and 800 meter freestyle relays. In the latter event, her personal best in the 800 free individually (8:39.80) is actually better than Guatemala’s National Record in the relay (8:51.47).
As a freshman at Northwestern, she led the team in the 500, 1000, and 1650 yard freestyle races. She broke the school record in the 1650 freestyle and finished 9th at the NCAA Championship meet.
Her mother, Karin Slowing, and her aunt, Melanie, were also Olympic swimmers.
Gruest graduated from Northwestern this spring. Her mother trained her from the age of 4.
While Gruest swam her last official races in the summer of 2017, and told the Northwestern student paper in 2020 that she had retired in 2019, Gruest says that she now finally felt empowered to announce her retirement to show others who have gone through abuse that it is possible to persevere.
Gruest told SwimSwam this week that she’s unable to share the identity of her abuser, on advice of her attorney, but she did confront her abuser during a trial in Guatemala after leaving the country for the United States.
During a Northwestern Art Review Video Art Show earlier this year, Gruest debuted her film “Behind the Smiles,” that juxtaposed the differences between photos of her success in swimming in the public eye with her narrating her experience of physical abuse and trauma.
Gruest’s full reflection on her swimming career is below.
Gruest Full Retirement Announcement
This has been the hardest thing I have ever written, both mentally and emotionally. Yet, the words on this page are the most empowering, liberating and heartfelt words I have ever written. Today, I am breaking my silence and officially announcing my retirement from competitive swimming.
This sport not only gave me the joy of representing my home country of Guatemala at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games but also paved the way for my education at Northwestern University, where I graduated with honors in both of my majors. Swimming challenged me to always push my limits in order to become a better version of myself and it gave me the courage to fight for my freedom even when things got tough. However, my authentic reality throughout my life has been completely different from what others have been able to see, as I endured psychological, physical and sexual abuse growing up. It wasn’t until three years ago that I was able to separate from my abuser to stop this cycle and process those events. My athletic career and personal life were full of ups and downs. I had to overcome more injuries than I can even count, underwent four reconstructive surgeries, kept my head afloat in spite of surviving insufferable abuse and struggled with my mental health. I reached my breaking point, both physically and mentally, which led me to say goodbye to the sport that taught me the best life lessons – hard work, discipline, overcoming hardships, never giving up no matter the circumstances and fighting for your dreams. In this way, retiring was one of the hardest, yet one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I want to share my personal experiences as a Latin American woman, researcher, Olympic athlete, artist and survivor in hope of positively affecting others who have gone through similar experiences. It is important for me to tell the truth behind my story because unfortunately, this happens – it happens right in front of us and even while being in the public eye. It has been hard, it has been a daily fight, and there were times I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through. During these times, I learned that family isn’t always blood – it’s the friends who stand by you in your toughest times, accept you for who you are, love you unconditionally and make life worth living. In the end, every effort in pursuit of my freedom was absolutely worth it. After a lifetime of living in fear, I want to show that you can overcome the adversities in your life by fighting back from darkness to build your own destiny.”
View this post on Instagram
Today, I break my silence and officially announce my retirement from competitive swimming. My life behind closed doors was very different from what was portrayed in the public eye. I endured psychological, physical and sexual abuse growing up, but I was never able to speak up. I was hiding behind the fear forced upon me by my abuser, leading me to act like everything was fine when it was not. Now I stand tall and share my story with you through my retirement letter above – here is the truth behind my smile.