This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website.
The athletes need support, and they need a place to train. We have that now. And that is why I am so excited about the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games this summer.
I am so excited about the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games this summer.
Sometimes, people accuse me of being excited only because I have to be, because I work for the Organizing Committee. But the real truth is I work at TORONTO 2015 because I am excited about the Games.
I have the best job at TORONTO 2015: I am the co-ordinator of athlete engagement, which means I get to work with the athlete hopefuls for this summer. Whether they be Olympic medallists like Adam van Koeverden or up-and-comers like swimmer Dominique Bouchard, they share the same sentiment about this summer: they are so pumped to compete at home.
The excitement the athletes exude is infectious; it makes me want to put my suit back on. But I haven’t been training very much and to be honest, I don’t want to lose to some 14-year-old from Brazil.
The decision to retire from the sport of swimming following the 2012 Olympics was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. But it was not the lure of the 2016 Olympics that made it so hard to hang up my suit for the last time. It was the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. Practically my hometown.
I spent six years representing Canada on the international stage and I only swam on home soil once, in Victoria in 2006, but that might as well have been a different country compared to Ontario. My Grandma used to print out every single article written about my swimming career and carry them around in her purse to show her hairdresser, her doctor, random people on the street: she was so proud of the fact her granddaughter swam for Team Canada. She never got to see me represent Canada live, and she never will. As an athlete, there is something so inspiring about representing Canada. It instills in you an unwavering feeling of patriotism.
Competing for Canada in Canada? Indescribable.
But, believe it or not, athletes competing on home soil is not what makes me most excited about Toronto hosting the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games this summer. In order to fully understand my passion, I need to take you back in time a bit.
I grew up swimming in my hometown of Stratford, Ont., — known best as the hotspot for class trips to see Hamlet and, of course, the infamous Justin Bieber. Not for swimmers probably, because we have just the one indoor YMCA pool. It has only four lanes, three starting blocks and a slide; it is only 25 yards long, as opposed to a minimum of 25 metres. And, the average temperature is a sultry 90 degrees, suited for swimming lessons and senior citizens, not swim teams.
My mom put me in swimming lessons before I could walk because she can’t swim at all and never wanted me to experience the same fear of the water she still has to this day. She would take me to mother-tot swimming lessons, and the process for getting babies used to the water was for their mom to hold them, count to three and dunk them under the surface against their will. I hated this. So, I got smart: my mother would count, one, two . . . but before she could say three, I would shove my hand in her mouth. Even in my tiny baby brain I learned that if I could cease the counting, I could avoid another near-drowning experience.
Needless to say, based on my first few experiences in the pool, I was not initially a fan of this whole “swimming” thing. Until I started to race; I was hooked. Diving off the blocks transformed me from a shy, timid child to a competitive, fighting athlete. The first goal I remember making was to someday swim in the Olympics. When other kids wanted to be doctors, veterinarians or actors (which was fairly common in Stratford) my goal always remained the same: the Olympic Games.
In 2008, I got to do just that. When I got to Beijing, I surprised everyone by qualifying for the final of the 200 individual medley. I ended up in seventh place overall and before I even had a chance to pull myself out of the pool I knew: over the next four years I was going to do whatever it took to win a medal for Canada in London. The last time a Canadian swimmer won a gold medal at the Olympics was Mark Tewksbury in 1992. A female Canadian swimmer has not won a gold medal at the Olympics in my lifetime. I wanted to end that drought in London.
But I came up short. My dream of standing on the Olympic podium for Canada ended in the semifinals of the 100 metre backstroke. I’ll never forget pulling myself out of the pool and watching the scoreboard: it flashed the top eight finishers from the two semifinals, the names of the women who would move on to the final to race for the gold medal.
My name was not on that list.
The scoreboard then flashed the bottom eight, the athletes who would not move on. And there I was, right at the top: Julia Wilkinson. Canada. Ninth. By eight one hundredths of a second.
I missed making the Olympic final by eight one-hundredths of a second.
As you can imagine, there were a lot of sleepless nights asking myself what went wrong. Where could I have gotten those eight one-hundredths of a second?
This fall, I stood on the deck at the new CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Am Aquatics Centre and Field House in Scarborough for the first time. I could not believe I was in Canada — call me a pessimist, but I didn’t believe we would ever have a facility like this one in Canada. And now we do.
I swam in a dark, hot, cramped pool with too much chlorine and no fresh air for 10 years. The pool built for this summer is big and bright; the water is the ideal temperature for training and racing. There is ample space for not just one swim team, but multiple to train simultaneously. The competition pool is deep enough for synchronized swimming and there is a separate diving tank to host the best divers in the world.
The pool in Scarborough reminds me of the Beijing “Water Cube.” Yes, the Beijing Water Cube. Toronto now has a pool equivalent to what was hailed to be the best pool in the world when it was built. I stood on that deck, and I swam in that water: I will tell you now that the Aquatic Centre is as good as the Water Cube.
I think I see now where I could’ve gotten those eight one-hundredths of a second.
It’s too late for me to be “the one” that ends Canada’s gold-medal drought in swimming: but that doesn’t mean I can’t still be apart of it. Right now, there are little eight-year-old swimmers out there who have dreams of going to the Olympics, and now they have the facility to get them all the way to the top of the podium, thanks to the fact that Toronto is hosting the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games this summer.
And it’s not just swimming: look at the Velodrome in Milton. Now our track cyclists have somewhere to train to be the best in the world. Look at the new facility in Markham. Look at the new track at York University. The plethora of new builds and upgrades to facilities in Toronto and the Greater Golden Horseshoe region is something Ontario’s athletes have been starving for my entire life.
Winning an Olympic gold medal is really hard. It takes talent. It takes hard work, bordering on insanity. It takes sacrifice. It takes luck. And even with all of this, it still might not be enough. The athletes need support, and they need a place to train.
From the beginning.
We have that now. And that is why I am so excited about the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games this summer.