The benefits of play: Olympian Heather Petri’s Right to Play Rwanda visit journal

Maggie Hendricks
Fourth-Place Medal

Heather Petri, a member of the 2012 gold-medal winning U.S. women's water polo team and and a four-time Olympic medalist, has joined a group of Olympians visiting Rwanda and Uganda with Right to Play. While visiting Right to Play's programs in Africa, Petri hopes to inspire the troubled country's children and teach them the virtues of play. She will blog about her experiences for Fourth-Place Medal. Read on for her first entry on how she prepared for the trip and what she expects to experience.

I have been packing for my trip to Rwanda and Uganda for a few weeks now. Trying to navigate the complexities of traveling to a country I have never been to before. Realizing more and more each day, that I will be stepping into a world very different than what I am used to. Priority number one used to be having my swimsuit, cap and goggles in my bag; the rest if forgotten, I surely could borrow from my teammates.

Now, three months exactly since the gold medal game in London, I will board a plane and join a new team -- staff and fellow Athlete Ambassadors of the global organization Right To Play, in Africa to use PLAY to educate and empower children facing adversity. My swim suit will stay at home and instead I will make sure I have packed my tennis shoes so that I can join some of the nearly 835,000 children that participate in the weekly activities Right To Play programs offer, taught by local volunteer coaches. I have wanted to participate in one of these "field activities" after I heard Johann Olav Koss, president and CEO of Right To Play, talk about one of his early experiences in Africa.

I originally learned about RTP in the Beijing Olympic Village, where they had an informational booth on their global programs. Upon return to the US I signed up to go to an event where I met Johann. He told us of a trip to Africa where he observed the most popular boy in the village was the one who had a long sleeve T-shirt on. They soon learned this was because he could take this shirt off, use the long sleeves to tie the shirt into a ball which the children would then use to play soccer in the streets. All these children wanted was to PLAY.

After hearing this story I often thought about what my life was like growing up. Nearly every memory involved me splashing around in a pool. I started out as a swimmer and eventually was introduced to the sport I love, the sport that has changed my life -- water polo.

What if I never had the chance to play in the pool?
What if I never had the chance to play in the pool? I undoubtedly would not be the person I am today. I was very shy as a child. Being on the swim team and then joining the water polo team helped me come out of my shell. Taught me how to set goals, communicate with others to achieve those goals and then believe in myself by achieving the small successes that lead to my end goal. I had no idea that all of this was even happening because all I was doing was having fun.

I think that is why what I really want to experience over in Rwanda and Uganda is the simple joy shared between people when playing. I know that my life and the lives of these children are as different in scope as can be. But despite those vast differences the activities we will participate in together will equalize that for a moment.

Right to Play has developed a unique set of games that help teach life skills through sport and play. One program is focused on health promotion and disease prevention. Two weeks ago during a group of Athlete Ambassadors got together to learn one of the games in this program. They called it "Malaria Tag" where the one who is "it" is a mosquito and goes around tagging people thus making them sick. Once bitten we had to act out the symptoms of malaria. Through further versions of the game, doctors and the action of "using a net" transforms a simple game of tag into a lesson on how to prevent those that are "it" from making you sick!

If we play this with children in the field, I fear I may be at a slight disadvantage to my fellow Athlete Ambassadors, Heather O'Riley and Alison Felix, as their mastery of craft- soccer and track & field, are land based. Those two may run circles around me!! Luckily, I have fellow aquatic comfortable Ambassadors with me, in Summer Sanders and Natalie Coughlin, and I'm sure we can figure out a way to make up for it!

Just under 24 hours now and I am SO excited to spend time learning all about the ways Right To Play impacts the lives of the communities we will visit, PLAY with incredible Athlete Ambassadors and children and experience a new culture and country!

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