Becoming Turkey’s first lifeguard with Down syndrome is only one of Irem Oztekin’s many successes. The 20-year old university student is also a professional swimmer with medals won in Turkey and abroad.
Irem Oztekin, 20, is a young woman with Down syndrome who has not let anything hold her back. She is an accomplished swimmer, a university student, and now, a certified lifeguard.
According to her father, Necdet Oztekin, Irem has been swimming for eight years. “Irem has around 100 medals, most of them first place, from swimming races in Turkey,” he says proudly. “She has also represented Turkey overseas three times.”
The young woman was a national athlete for Turkey in 2017 (France), 2018 (Kosovo) and 2019 (Italy). “She has broken the world swimming record in France in the 50 m and 100 m butterfly stroke in her age group,” her father adds.
“As you might guess, because of the pandemic the DSISO championship that was supposed to be held in Turkey in 2020 did not take place, and we don’t know what will happen in 2021 yet,” Necdet Oztekin says.
Irem has succeeded in life with the support of her parents and her trainers, Mert Onaran and Efe Karaca. “She went to one of the best high schools in Izmir, Nevvar - Salih İşgören Mesleki ve Teknik Anadolu Lisesi,” her mother, Melek Oztekin tells TRT World.
“Irem had a good role model ahead of her, her older sister, who is graduating from medical school this year,” she adds. “And now Irem, too, is a university student. She took the preliminary exam [last year] like every other [able] student, and then had to take the swimming test to place in Ege University Sports Sciences Faculty.
“She had to do the same time as her [non-Down syndrome] peers for the 100 m freestyle swimming, and what she ended up doing was even better: 1 minutes and 43 seconds.”
Irem’s trainer Efe Karaca says he has been working with her for six years, having met her at Republic of Turkey Ministry of Youth and Sports’ training sessions. “We captured a beautiful harmony with other kids with Down syndrome,” he adds, noting that “what we aim [for Irem] is international races. Our best place in a competition was in the 2017 France Paris world junior record in both 50 and 100 metres.”
Karaca goes on to say that he was personally by Irem’s side during her university interviews and that she ended up choosing to attend Ege University Faculty of Sport Sciences that he also attended. “It will be an incredible experience for both Irem and the instructors at the school. I am excited that she will be my colleague in the future.”
Irem’s mother Melek Oztekin says that they have been supportive of her all of her life. “We started her off with swimming, thinking it would be good for her to exercise,” Melek says. Her father is a physical therapist and has worked with her, and I took care of logistics, making sure she got to where she needed to be.”
While Melek and Necdet Oztekin are proud of what their daughter has achieved, Melek says that they are befuddled by the lack of support by sponsors. “Irem goes through training swimsuits not to mention racing swimsuits at a fast pace,” Melek points out. “But to this day, we do not have a sponsor who is willing to take our daughter by the hand and be part of her successes.”
Irem’s trainer Efe Karaca praises her, saying “as you will agree, Irem has attempted and succeeded at many difficult undertakings in our society. Becoming a lifeguard is only one [of her many achievements].”
Irem’s mother Melek credits her family for pushing Irem to take up sports, rather than letting her stay at home in front of the TV. “We believe in her and we are glad she has made room for sports in her life. Can you imagine what it would be like if she were at home all day, in front of the television, or on the computer? Children should be encouraged to take up sports,” she says.
According to trainer Karaca, Irem is now a professional athlete, “aware that what we do is for her own good, and always arriving with a happy face for training. As long as she doesn’t lose this spirit, Irem will always be a winner.”