By: Julia Wilkinson
04/10/2012 11:44 AM
Photo by Graham Hughes
- The Canadian Olympic trials are unlike any other swim meet I've ever competed in. My teammate, Olympic bronze medalist Ryan Cochrane, firmly believes that the trials are way more stressful for swimmers than the actual Olympic Games themselves.
As the second night of racing came to a close at the trials in Montreal, 18-year-old 400 IM champion Alec Page came up to me after watching two of our Victoria Academy teammates fail to qualify for the Olympics and said, "Jules, I don't like Olympic Trials anymore." This flip in his emotions - after being jubilant only 24 hours earlier when he qualified for his first Olympic team - is expected. But even when you see it coming, it's never easy.
For me, all the hours in the pool and weight room coupled with the amount of work I have done on my mental fortitude came to fruition last week. I won three events - the 100-metre backstroke, 200 IM, and 100 freestyle - and finished my week with a bronze in the 200 backstroke.
I was hoping to be in the top two in the 200 back, which would have secured me a place in the Olympic race, but unfortunately I was beaten by Canadian record holder Sinead Russell and my own Victoria Academy teammate Hilary Caldwell. Still, I swam my way to a three-second personal best time and a bronze medal in a race where five women went under the FINA "A" standard - something I have never witnessed in my years of swimming - and I get to be joined by one of my best friends and training partners at the Olympics. Did I want the Olympic spot? Yes. But, all things considered, I'm still happy with my swim.
This was not the case for everyone, however. You can't quite understand how much pressure athletes put on themselves to reach that one elusive goal - the Olympic Games - until you witness your friends succumb to it.
As I sat in the ready room before my 100 backstroke final, I listened in horror as my teammate Stefan Hirniak came fourth in the 200-metre butterfly for the second Olympic trials in a row. He's the Canadian record holder in the event and was seeded No. 1 going into the finals. He worked hard all year: I witnessed those Saturday mornings when he swam over 2,000 metres of butterfly hard. When we were tapering in Jacksonville, he looked great. But something happened in between his hours of preparation and the moment he stepped onto those blocks in Montreal. Who knows what it was, but it was heartbreaking to witness.
Stefan was not the only swimmer who left Montreal heartbroken. 2008 Olympians Mike Brown and Annamay Pierse placed fourth and fifth, respectively, in their premier event (the 200-metre breaststroke) and will not be joining us in London this summer. Others who were on the cusp, although not necessarily favoured or in the media spotlight, still feel the sting of disappointment just as much as former Olympians and Canadian record holders do. Their blog posts, Facebook statuses, tweets and texts have really gotten me thinking over the past few days.
I guess it seems unfair for me to say this, because, no, I don't know what it's like. I've qualified for two Olympic teams in my career, so I can't possibly understand how my friends who just saw their dreams dashed must feel.
But, that being said, I do know what it's like to be an Olympian. And I know something that they can't possibly: that whether or not you qualify for your country's Olympic team does not make or break your career. Yes, it is the upper echelon, the top of our Mount Everest. We don't have an NHL or MLB equivalent in swimming. The Olympics are it. And yet, I'm no better a person because I'm on Canada's Olympic team. All of the swimmers who almost made it, or maybe didn't even come close, have still put in long hours. They have still sacrificed. They still carry with them all the life lessons that swimming taught them. Being an Olympian adds to your resume, but failing to make the team does not take anything away from you.
A tragic loss
After the trials, I spent two days in Montreal filling out paper work, talking to media, signing posters, and letting the fact that I was going to be a two-time Olympian sink in. But it was within this time that the most unexpected and tragic event of the entire week occurred. We lost Gord Sleivert, the vice president of Canadian Sport Centre Pacific (in Victoria), to a heart attack.
Gord was not only an integral part of our success at the Victoria Academy of Swimming, but he was a friend to me as well. He was with us at my first Olympics in Beijing, and was one of the most important members of the support staff in terms of making my rookie Olympics a success. From handing me my disgusting-tasting recovery drink and calling it a margarita as I shivered in the cold tub, to making our sides hurt from laughing during his "rookie" skit, to knowing everything about my swimming from my best times to my hopes and dreams, Gord was always someone I could count on. He didn't help us because it was his job. He helped us because he truly believed in each and every one of us. I will miss him so much, and my heart goes out to his wife and three children.
It will be hard to walk the halls of the Pacific Institute of Sport Excellence when I return to Victoria, because I have to face the fact that Gord will not be around the corner, asking us what's for lunch that day, or gushing about how "fast" I look. But I know deep down that Gord will still be there because of what he built for us. He will be reflected in our success this summer at the Olympics. I only wish he could be there to see us do what he always believed in.
Needless to say, I don't think there was an emotion I didn't feel in the last week and a half. But now it's back to Victoria and back to business, regardless of what has happened. The hardest part is yet to come.