“An Olympic medal is my goal and my biggest dream,” says the 20-year-old ahead of Rio 2016. “And there is only one colour that I want: gold, the most beautiful of the three.”
Many consider Santana, who won a gold medal and two silvers at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, to be one of the host nation’s biggest hopes of success this August – but things could have turned out very differently. In 2013 he was released from the Brazil men’s swimming team for the FINA World Junior Championships due to fear that his diabetes, with which he was diagnosed at the age of eight, would make it unwise to compete.
“I discovered that I had diabetes when I was eight years old,” he says. “It was a huge surprise for me and my family. My mum took it in a very hard way for a few years, but we managed to find all the best doctors, medications and whatever we could to keep things under control. I was released from the national team because examinations showed my diabetes was at a high level, and being in a competition might risk my health. In truth, it was really hard to accept this decision – but I never gave up trying. The thing I wanted the most was to come back and show the world I was healthy again. Being cut off was bad, but it helped me get stronger and took me out of my comfort zone. The condition will not stop me if I take care of it.”
Santana says his club, family and friends helped to “raise me from the ashes” after that setback, but few could have expected his recovery to be so quick and so spectacular. In Nanjing he took 100m freestyle gold, 50m freestyle silver and another silver in the mixed 4x100m freestyle, serving notice that a remarkable talent would not let anything get in his way.
“When the Youth Olympic Games gold medal came, I lived an incredible feeling at the highest place on the podium,” he says. “Even today, it is hard to describe what I felt that day. Competing in Nanjing was an amazing experience and winning gold made it even more special for me; it was the best moment of my life and I cried afterwards because of the tough moments of 2013.”
The Youth Olympic Games were, he explains, excellent preparation for what he will face in front of a passionate home crowd in Rio, with the level of competition a natural stage in the pathway towards the Olympics themselves.
“It was really different – it felt like competing in the Olympic Games, but for young athletes,” he says. “It was a new competition for me, but I can say that Nanjing 2014 was one of the best competitions I’ve been to. The only real difference between the Olympic Games and the Youth Olympic Games is the age limit. It was special to be part of it; a special moment. The Olympic spirit in the Olympic Village and all the competitions is something difficult to describe. There is an Olympic mood, with friendship all around and a lot of cultural activities in the village.”
Rio 2016 is the priority now. The pressure may be greater and the demands even higher but Santana cannot wait to embrace it and make a statement in his home country.
“I think there will always be pressure,” he says. “I’ll have to face it in all the competitions I compete in, and I must be prepared to match all the high expectations on me. People will always be watching and waiting for a good result, but that won’t get to me. I’m an easygoing guy, calm and focused, and I know how to deal with these situations. When you reach this level you have to do that, and I have prepared myself for it – so it’s no big deal.”
Santana does, though, have some past feats to live up to. Brazil’s Olympic history in the pool includes 4x100m bronze in 2000 and the task now, after gold at the PanAmerican Games and an encouraging fourth place at the FINA World Aquatics Championships last year, is to compete strongly once more.
“Those results prove that we are doing something right,” he says. “I think we will reach the finals and will be a strong team fighting for a medal. We are at home and I think that will be an extra motivation for us. We will work hard at our clubs, and then prepare ourselves to achieve our best at the Olympics.
After all that Santana has achieved since that disappointment in 2013, you would not back against him going all the way to the biggest prize of all.