Swimming to America

April 26, 2010

When Haftom Ambaye was a young boy, there was absolutely nothing to suggest that he would one day be a competitive swimmer with a gift for breaking speed records. In fact, until he was 12, Ambaye had never swum a stroke or even seen a pool. And BMCC, where today he is a second-semester Liberal Arts major, was a world—and a lifetime—away.

Ambaye was born in 1986 in a refugee camp in Sudan, where his family had been relocated while a civil war ravaged their home province of Humera, Ethiopia. They returned home—without his father—two years later, when a ceasefire was in place. “My dad had left and moved to the U.S. right after I was born,” he says. “Meanwhile, my mom had remarried. My sisters and brother and I all loved our stepfather and thought of him as our father. I really didn’t give any thought to my biological father.”

But that changed dramatically when Ambaye was eight. “My mom had been in touch with my father, who was in the U.S. working on a Masters degree in math,” he says. “He wanted to bring me over to live with him. For a kid living in a Third-World country, the idea that I had an American dad—by definition a rich American dad—was incredibly exciting.”

Off to a fast start

Flying unaccompanied, the 10-year-old landed in New York in August 1997, where he was met by the father he had never known. He started sixth grade at IS90 in Washington Heights the next day. “I spoke virtually no English and didn’t understand any of my classes for the first eight months,” he says. “Even so, it was fun.”

With the help of his teachers, father and stepmother, Ambaye’s proficiency in the language of his adopted country improved quickly. (Today, he speaks unaccented English.) A burgeoning interest in dancing led to a scholarship at the Alvin Ailey American Dance School summer camp. Meanwhile, another pursuit was capturing his imagination.

“My older brother, who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1993, was swimming regularly at the YMCA on 135th Street,” he says. Ambaye followed his brother to the Y, where he learned to swim. Later, he earned a spot on Riverbank State Park’s C-level team, ultimately working his way up to the A team. “In one swim meet, I did the 200-meter backstroke in 1:58,” he says. “To this day I haven’t bested that time.”

Pausing to reflect

After a brief stint as a freshman at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, NY, Ambaye decided to take some time off to save money and rethink his career goals. Last fall, he enrolled in BMCC and, not surprisingly, joined the men’s swim team, where he has been a mainstay in the 200- and 100- meter backstrokes and the 400-meter individual medley. When he’s not in class or in the BMCC pool, he’s likely to be at Imagine Swimming, where he teaches children to swim.

“Swimming has become a central part of my life,” says Ambaye. At BMCC, he is thriving in both pool and classroom, thanks to the support of many people, including his parents, step-parents, teachers, and swim coach Andy Escobar. After graduating from BMCC, Ambaye plans to go on to a senior college and major in physical therapy. Ultimately, he hopes to make good on his promise to his mother and return to Ethiopia to live and work. But there will always be swimming. “I really can’t get enough of it,” he says.


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  • Born amidst civil war, Haftom Ambaye is eight years old when he reconnects with his father
  • Emigrates to the U.S. at 10 to begin a new life
  • Becomes a star of the BMCC swim team

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