Tucker Dupree is a professional swimmer. Not only that, he has been swimming professionally for 12 years, has swum for Team USA at the Paralympics, has won medals and World Championships, and is also one of FFC’s newest endurance coaches.
FFC marketing manager Megan Zink had the opportunity to talk to Tucker about his background, the challenges he’s overcome and advice learned along the way… and the best way to get into a cold pool.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Megan Zink: So Tucker, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background, and also your background with FFC.
Tucker Dupree: I had a lot of great opportunities to wear the Team USA uniform for 12 years as an athlete, and swim for all the best coaches in the world. I had the ability to represent our country at 3 different Paralympic games; 2008, 2012, 2016. And to take the sport of swimming and travel the world and represent our country was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever dreamed of doing as a kid.
I retired last year after the World Championships. When I won the 50 freestyle, I was like, ‘alright, I’m done, I’m going out on top. I need nothing more from this sport, I’ve won all the medals.’ After that, I had the opportunity to really sit there and say, ‘what’s next? I’m not getting any younger.’ So I retired from swimming, and I now work for the marketing team at BP down here in the loop.
MZ: I read that you started losing your eyesight when you were 17, and then in a short number of months, it progressed. But I also read that your take was, ‘I love this so much, I have to make it work. I have to figure out how to make it work.’ So do you have any advice for people who feel like they have come up against obstacles in their lives that seem indomitable? Like, ‘I don’t even know how I’m going to get around this’ type obstacles?
TD: A couple of things. I was going through the transition of okay, ‘I didn’t lose all of my vision’, so I’m not going to sit around and think about ‘what if’ – the condition I have is so rare, that when I was diagnosed, everyone was like, ‘well you could wake up tomorrow and be completely blind, so, good luck.’ There was no, ‘this is exactly what’s going to happen to you.’
When that all happened [when I was 17], I was swimming. And I had all these aspirations to swim in college, I had different scholarships on the table, and I was like, ‘okay, what am I going to do, because I’ve worked so hard to get to this stage in my career, but also I’m losing my sight.’
So I sat down and talked to one of my swim coaches at the time, who had been coaching me since I was a teenager – 12 all the way through 18 – and who actually became the travel coach with me throughout my Olympic journey. She said, ‘you have a choice. You can pick between what’s right, and what’s easy.’ And I think that was the biggest crossroads for me, because losing my vision was something everyone was telling me was going to give me depression – there wasn’t a cure for what was going on with me. And that’s something that I really had to pick between. Because it was so easy to give up, it was so easy to have this become something that was depressing or something to feel bad about. Or, I could say, ‘hey, you know what? I’m going to do something great with this. I’m gonna show people that yes, I am technically ‘disabled’ but also that it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.’
Because I’m still a person, right? And I say this all the time – yes, I’m part of the disabled community, but at the same time, people with disabilities are people with disabilities. The word people is before that. And I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve been an advocate for – we’re not less. Yes, I have something that’s different. But at the same time, any time someone meets me or I talk to them, they’ll say something like, ‘I didn’t even know you are blind.’
I lived 17 years of my life fully-sighted and I have a visual impairment now, and a little bit of my vision in the middle is gone. But at the same time, I had the opportunity to take a sport and represent our country in the Paralympics, which is the second largest sporting event in the world (it’s bigger than the World Cup) and a lot of people in the US don’t know that. So I was like, ‘I have to get out, I have to tell my story.’ For me, the only things that really impaired me in the pool were that I couldn’t really read a clock, or the practice on the board. But other than that, I was doing everything that everyone else was doing. I tell a lot of people that swim with me, ‘you’ll never even notice that I can’t see most of what’s going on around me because I’m very high-functioning.’
‘Because it was so easy to give up, it was so easy to have this become something that was depressing or something to feel bad about. Or, I could say, ‘hey, you know what? I’m going to do something great with this. I’m gonna show people that yes, I am technically ‘disabled’ but also that it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.’
With this swim workshop I’m doing at FFC, I’m going to be in the water with everyone, I’m going to be demonstrating what I’m talking about and it’s very athlete-specific; it’s not going to be a workout that I write up on the board and then I yell at you. I think that’s something unique – a ‘walk the walk, talk the talk’ sort of thing. Giving everyone a wealth of knowledge is really my philosophy, because there isn’t just one way to fix swimming. Because that’s not what worked for me. I had coaches all around the world teach me different things, and what I want to bring to the table with this class is that this is not just a workout, this is an opportunity to really tweak the things that you want to get better at, to improve your ironman, or just to have the ability to come in and swim consecutively. Whatever your goals are, that’s what this class is about.
MZ: That was actually going to be my next question – has this sort of changed the way that you coach people? Because I know when you were working with coaches [when you were losing your eyesight] they had to get way more descriptive with you.
TD: The thing about this sport is – I tell people all the time – it is not easy, at all. To do this at an elite level, it takes a LOT of work. And it’s tweaking little things. Moving your hand 4 inches to the left over the course of 45 strokes goes a long way, because it’s improving every single stroke. If you can tweak something that you’re already doing, it just goes so much better. This sport has a TON of moving parts – your hands, your legs, your feet, your head, your core, everything is moving – and you’re horizontal. The only time you’re horizontal during your day is when you sleep. And not only that; you’re floating… so body awareness – out the door. So I’m telling you to lay down, float, and work hard. So yeah – your brain is gonna explode. That’s normal. That’s something I tell people – this sport is not easy, but when you make it simplistic – I’ve had coaches sit down and describe everything to me, and then I got to go do it – that has really helps me as a coach now, to describe different ways to get from A to B.
MZ: So really quickly, because I don’t want to forget the other question I have; for me, the ‘getting in the pool’ thing – the cold water is terrible. Do you have any tips for getting over that?
TD: Just jump. You just gotta go. You can’t – the only way to do it is to not dip your toe it. That’s the worst idea.
MZ: Have you been able to – can you pinpoint anything you’ve taken from swimming or coaching and apply it to the bigger scale of life? Do you have any tips?
The sport is very repetitious; you go up and down the same lane expecting different results – which unless you’re changing things, is the definition of insanity. So I think having different perspectives is something that we all are always seeking – we’re always looking, especially in the fitness world – for that silver bullet, that ‘I want to be the best tomorrow’… but understanding that this sport teaches tenacity is something that I have really taken and put into my day to day life. There are days I show up to the pool feeling like crap and not really wanting to be there, but some of those days are my best training days. The fact that I came in and set a small goal for myself that day, of something like ‘every time I push off the wall, I’m going to have the best streamline I’ve ever had’ – that’s something that, over 5000 yards, is a lot. That’s 5000 yards of perfect streamlines. And when I’m swimming a race that takes 21 seconds, that’s a great training day.
I learned a lot from the sport, just being kind of aware of what I’m doing. And my sport was all about time, so being aware of time and time efficiency and being punctual – all that translates to day to day life. The sport gave so much to me – I did more without vision than I ever would have dreamed about doing sighted. Now it’s one of those things where I’m like, ‘alright, what do I do next?’
Just jump. You just gotta go. You can’t – the only way to do it is to not dip your toe it. That’s the worst idea.
Sign Up for a Swim Workshop with Tucker Dupree!
Want to take your technique to the next level? Sign up for a swim workshop with Tucker Dupree! Each class is strategically designed to provide members with drills to improve technique and efficiency, as well as interval workouts to improve speed and endurance. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!