Amid Venezuela’s turmoil, Aitor Fungairiño finds his diversion

Liliana Hall

Aitor Fungairiño didn’t dream of being a swimmer as a kid, but once his family was forced to leave Venezuela, it became his only option. 

Fungairiño’s family decided to leave Venezuela in 2013 as protests grew violent and the country’s future became uncertain. Six years later, the humanitarian crisis has forced 3.4 million citizens to flee their country.

“The people of Venezuela weren’t just holding signs and marching through the streets chanting words of the opposition,” Fungairiño said. “People were grabbing tear gas grenades and throwing them into the streets, and people were dying. I was a young kid and I had to tell my mom not to get killed in the protests.” 

Carolina Perpetuo, Fungairiño’s mother and a Venezuelan actress, moved her family twice with hopes the political climate would improve, but when it became difficult to find work abroad, the family returned to Venezuela both times. 

“We lived in Holland when Aitor was 3 years old, but two years later returned to Venezuela because we thought we could build a normal life with a certain level of wellbeing,” Perpetuo said. “We put up with the political circumstances and we were good at fighting it, but after the second move, we had to build a third opportunity to leave the country for the United States.”

Fungairiño attended Belen Jesuit Preparatory School after moving to Miami, where the idea of swimming in college started to become a reality. 

“(While in high school), I always wanted to swim in college, but even in Venezuela, I never had any idea if that was even possible, because in Venezuela you go to college, but you don’t swim for a team unless you are going to the Olympics,” Fungairiño said. 

Fungairiño had a slow start on the Belen Jesuit swim team after not making it to zones his freshman year, but he began gaining national recognition after medaling at the 2017 World Junior Championships, where he won the 3A title in the 200 free and a state title in the 500 free. 

With eyes on a verbal pledge to Texas, Fungairiño was invited to swim under the leadership of head coach Eddie Reese. During his freshman season, Fungairiño has competed in three dual meets and participated in the Texas Hall of Fame Invitational. 

He won’t be competing at the Big 12 Championships this week, but Fungairiño remains optimistic for his next opportunity to compete at the American Short Course Championship on March 7. 

“I have never been the top dog at a pool,” Fungairiño said. “I’ve always entered a swimming program being the slowest one and eventually improving little by little.”

The issues in Venezuela left Fungairiño with an indication that he wouldn’t ever swim in college — especially for a top-10 team. But now, his mother views his career as a testament to the circumstances their family has overcome.

“To see Aitor studying and swimming at such a great university gives meaning to the struggle we had all those years,” Perpetuo said. 

Fungairiño’s family no longer has ties in Venezuela that would merit a return. Still, he finds it difficult to be content with his life in Texas as the humanitarian crisis gains international attention. 

“I don’t know why I have the privilege of being in the United States when my country, my people are fighting over there,” Fungairiño said. “I want to go back one day, but at the same time, I have to be realistic. It is either that or I swim.”