Trym Aunevik, 17, can fire the rifles local teachers carry at recess in case of polar bears, but isn’t allowed to attend school because there’s no program for someone with Down’s Syndrome. But the lessons of a lifetime of challenges and endurance are reaping unprecedented rewards for him – and family and supporters at his side since birth – as the three-time national champion swimmer is achieving new heights of victory this week at the Special Olympic World Games in Abu Dhabi.
Born with mental and physical impairments seemingly incompatible with the ability to grow up in the world’s northernmost town, where merely walking to school in a blizzard is potentially fatal for those ill-equipped, Trym is believed to be the first special needs child to do so. Now working in his mom’s cafe instead of sitting in classrooms, his leisure time is dominated by a variety of indoor and outdoor sports that defy his inherent inability to develop muscle tone, including the swimming he started at two months of age that is earning global acclaim after a year of extra-intense training following his selection for the Games.
“Trym set a personal record by a full 11 seconds on the 100-meter butterfly and almost four seconds in the 200-meter freestyle,” the Norwegian Swimming Federation Association announced on its Facebook page after Trym completed his first two events Sunday, noting his next events are Tuesday. “With those he finished in fourth- and fifth-place.”
Those finishes don’t necessarily mean Trym finished in the top five among all swimming at the Games, where 7,000 athletes from 170 countries are gathered. As with everything else in his life, it requires a little extra explanation.
When Trym’s parents learned shortly after his birth he had Down’s Syndrome there was a devastating sense of failure and presumption their adventurous new life in Longyearbyen was over since it was isolated far from his needs. Because of Svalbard’s stringent rules, his mother Tove Beate Eide had to go to the mainland shortly before her due date to give birth in a hospital there with proper maternity facilities. She feared there would be no return trip for the family.
“I said ‘there’s no way we can come back to Longyearbyen,'” she said while accompanying Trym to one of his final training sessions before he departed for the Games.
But return they did, with overwhelming doubts that were fed by years of early struggle and further perceptions of failure.
“I must admit the first year – I would not say it was a black hole – but it really twisted your mind because there was an expectation that was not fulfilled,” said Trym’s father, Terje Aunevik.
From the start, however, the unique challenges of living in Longyearbyen were also accompanied by friends and other community members offering support official policies could not – and, Terje said, a life education unlike any other possible in a small town.
“It’s a good side of the Longyearbyen society because this never would have been possible without the people around him,” he said. There’s also a freedom being able to do things such as walk everywhere since in a big city “for him to adopt to things like train schedules is really difficult there.”
Trym’s parents fought their doubts by trying to provide a normal upbringing as best they could, including the first of now-countless trips to the public swimming pool with other new parents shortly after returning home.
“We took him from when he was two months old to baby swim,” Tove said.
Friends also took him to those sessions when his parent couldn’t, as well as taking on the challenges involved with raising him beginning in those first few months. Among them was Lisbeth Eilertsen, a teacher who at the time was working in the kindergarten (which in Longyearbyen accepts infants as well as pre-schoolers) who was won over by stubbornness, including a persona of never giving up.
“Working in the kindergarten I said ‘I want him – nobody else,'” she said while sitting with Trym in the library during one of his quieter moments before the Games.
But being a kindergartener in Longyearbyen means a lot more than swing sets and sandboxes (they have their own reindeer hunting quota, after all), and so it was with Trym thanks to people like Eilertsen.
“She has the patience I don’t,” his father said. “She the first able to get him on skis. That was really quite amazing.”
Trym swam in his first meet at the age of seven and “you could really seem him fire up,” Terje said. That led to years of increasingly competitive efforts culminating three gold, two silver and one bronze finish at the national Landsstevnet swimming competitions in Gjøvik during the fall of 2018 that earned him a trip to the World Games.
Standing near Trym during much of the recent training session before he departed, as with so many others over the years, was his younger sister Vår to supervise his technique. Standing on the starting block time and again, he carefully under guidance made the incredibly precise adjustments in stance befitting a national champion swimmer, very much as he has in countless other aspects of his life ranging from icing cinnamon rolls at his mother’s cafe to shooting at the rifle range.
Trym, in an interview shortly before departing for Abu Dhabi, said his focus preparing for the Games has been on “doing the right things when diving, turning and swimming.”
“I’m training more,” he said. “I swim four times a week, do circular training once a week and football once a week.”
Even a proper world-class training diet – an implausible thought when he, like many with his impairment, was interested in eating little more than bread – is an acquired skill. Trym, at 172 centimeters tall and just shy of 60 kilograms, said he’s currently building strength with pasta, pancakes, cheese, smoothies and chocolate (and, yes, plenty of bread).
Trym is one of four Norwegian swimmers competing in the Games but, much like he is a unique and fascinating presence in Longyearbyen, he is also likely to be one in a social and physical climate that’s the polar opposite of his hometown.
“I think people may ask about polar bears,” he said. As he tells peers at other meets, “the bears are not in the city, but in the valley.”
Traveling far to a strange land where temperatures may be nearly 60C warmer than back home doesn’t bother him since he travels with most of his family to their second home in Thailand every summer. As for expectations, he has ambitions but they aren’t foremost on his mind.
“I think maybe first place or second place and I’m looking forward to swimming with people from the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s also OK not to win. It’s the experience of going to Abu Dhabi and being able to swim.”
Trym attempt to win medals will be in a sense against other swimmers at the Games, as he will be placed in a competition class based on his assessed skills. But during the events themselves medal rankings are based on levels set by times completed, not how he finishes among all the competitors.
“It will be really interesting to see what level he is at internationally,” his father Terje said.
Terje has, of course, been as tireless in his encouragement as he hopes his son proves to be during the Games, but is still able to assess the teen’s strengths and weaknesses objectively.
“He has a unique technique and is very strong,” Terje said, adding there’s still room for improvement with the latter. “He moves very efficiently in water. You can see it when he does the butterfly or the crawl. He’s not only using power, he’s very smooth.”
As for his son’s biggest challenge to overcome?
“It’s still really challenging going the last mile,” he said. “He hates to be exhausted.”
Trym also recognizes he’s likely to fare better in some events, including the butterfly and freestyle events Sunday, than others.
“It’s difficult to swim on my backside,” he said.
What’s given him the endurance to keep swimming, not just during an individual event, but for so many years when succumbing to his genetic weaknesses would be so much easier?
“I enjoy swimming because I’m good at it, and I like people watching me and cheering me on,” Trym said.
There’s been no shortage of people rooting for him back home in sports and real life, even when circumstances revive the feelings of failure his parents felt during those early years. Last year as he was earning a spot on the world stage, he was denied one at Longyearbyen School because there aren’t teachers able to provide what is considered an officially acceptable high school education due to the limited social support resources the Norwegian government provides Svalbard.
The setback again had his parents contemplating moving to the mainland, which now would mean giving up his mother’s highly-successful cafe and his father’s standing as head of the Svalbard Businesses Association (plus his plans to run for mayor in this fall’s election). But it was the personal losses and belief that Trym shouldn’t be denied a chance for a life here that were painful – and prompted his parents to dig in yet again with the persistence their son has shown in the pool.
“I’m convinced that it’s really possible for him to make a contribution to society,” his father said. “I believe he can learn anything. Even we underestimated him. We were really surprised at what he can learn, even now at Fruene where he’s now even learning things like the register.”
Trym began working at the cafe in something of a work-study arrangement last fall, beginning with simpler duties such as bussing dishes and gradually expanding to where he can now do most of the same duties as his co-workers.
“It’s all about repetition,” Terje said. “With others you may only repeat it five times. With Trym maybe you have to repeat it 300 times and that’s just the beginning.”
Terje said his son is on a “four-year plan where he can get a paper saying he’s almost a chef,” although when it comes to what Trym actually wants to do with his life is an open book.
“It depends on what’s on television,” Terje said. “If it’s about police then he wants to do something with the police like any other kid.”
Trym said he misses experiencing high school with his peers and would like to be in the company of others like him on a regular basis, but plenty is happening now to keep him fulfilled.
“It’s OK to work at Fruene,” he said. “I meet my friends, sometimes at Fruene and sometimes at the swimming pool. I would like to be with other people with Down’s Syndrome. But I have a good life in Longyearbyen.”
Instead of socializing with peers in the classroom during the day, he chats about sports with the coal miners and other regulars who gather at the cafe each morning. But he hangs out during evenings and weekends with his longtime friends, who also threw him a surprise birthday party at the school he can no longer attend last year.
“I honestly think he’s a happy guy,” Terje said. “He enjoys his friends and he enjoys his life, even if it’s not friends in the traditional way.”
Besides swimming, football and skiing, Trym is also active in hockey, climbing and exploring (with others since “we get those weird times when he starts exploring places he’s not supposed to,” as his father puts it). Terje said his son has also shown a remarkable energy recently for dancing.
“He actually did that on his own,” Terje said. “He started to train like crazy on those dance routines. That is one of the things he can do for a long time without getting exhausted. He is really strong when it comes to balance and body control.”
Terje first came to Svalbard as a dog musher in 1998 before becoming manger director of Pole Position Logistics and Tove started Fruene in 2004, and their early sense of failure and fear of losing those now longtime occupations has given way to the glory experienced by few parents who can call a child a world-class athlete. But Terje said raising Trym is also offering a different type of exotic reward, comparing it to an analogy he heard about a traveler who boards a flight he thinks is headed to Hawaii only to find himself in Budapest.
“But after a while you realize Budapest is a remarkable place to be,” Terje said.
“I honestly believe Trym has changed the view I have on life in a positive way,” he said. “I would say Trym has made me more open that the world is more than the rational and we all have needs.”