Q&A with Artist-Athlete, Olympian Valerie Gruest

Q&A with Artist-Athlete, Olympian Valerie Gruest

4 minute read

Swimming doesn’t define Artist-Athlete, Valerie Gruest. Neither does a number. We sat down with Valerie about how her art reflects her athletic experience.


Valerie Gruest competed in the 2016 Olympics at just 17 years old. A Guatemalan swimming national record holder, she suffered from a career ending shoulder injury two years after the Olympics while attending Northwestern University. Valerie Gruest is also an artist. She describes how her art expresses her story beyond what people know. 

Which piece of artwork is most meaningful to you?

I made a three-part graffiti piece that represents my life stages...

  • My childhood in Guatemala
  • The peak of my athletic career at the Olympics
  • My life past swimming, yet still a part of what defines me

...based on numbers that appeared during each life stage.  Numbers like my weight, my height, my grades and time standards for competition. Off by a millisecond, then I wasn’t worth anything. 

The piece is big. It's immersive. Yet, up close, the layers of spray paint and acrylic tell the details of the story. Look closer and see painted lines of the swimming pool, like I’m in the water looking down, symbolizing what I used to see for hours and hours and hours every single day of my life.

It’s shown from my perspective because I have PTSD, anxiety and panic disorder. When I get panic attacks, what you see in the piece is what I see in my head—random things flying around. It's overwhelming.

"That's what I want to represent - chaos within reality."

- Artist-Athlete, Valerie Gruest

Are swimming and art interconnected for you? As escapes of reality?  

Growing up, swimming was my escape from my reality. Once in the pool, I was alone with my thoughts - me, the water and nothing else. If I had a bad day, I would go all out, leaving no emotion in my tank. 

Today, being an artist is my way of releasing everything, including 18 years of accumulated trauma in my life from an abusive relationship. I spend hours and hours in the studio without realizing if the sun came up or went down. Talking to different artists, I’ve realized everyone goes through something and that's what makes us special. It’s a great reminder that I'm not alone. 

Any artists or creators you look to for inspiration?

Brendan Fernandes, one of my professors in the Northwestern University Art, Theory and Practice Department, is an internationally recognized Canadian artist working at the intersection of dance and visual arts. He was a professional ballet dancer and had a career ending injury like me. He helped me realize that my experiences, as bad as they were, didn’t need to be hidden. He challenged me to dig deeper and see that art could be a form of healing and inner growth to overcome pain and challenges. 

I enjoy hearing unique interpretations of my art based on the audience's own life experiences. No one can see what’s in my mind and what I’ve gone through. But, if I can make something powerful that appeals to different audiences, maybe they can relate. 

Post-graduation, how do you plan to integrate art into your life? 

I’ve come to realize I don't need five hours a day to be an artist. I love noticing and sketching the beauty in little things that come to life sometimes as a quick doodle or thoughts in my sketchpad.

Art works its magic when I’m in it.

- Artist-Athlete, Valerie Gruest

Any ideas if you were to design a round21 product or collection? 

I enjoy working with graffiti. Thinking about all the movement in a ping pong game, I would choose to do a modern graffiti collection.

Photo credits: courtesy of Valerie Gruest 

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