By Jim Morris

The plan was to strengthen the skills of some of the country’s best Para-swimmers while paving the road to success for the next generation.

A recent Swimming Canada training camp in Plantation, Fla., combined athletes with podium aspirations for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro with a group not expected to reach their potential until 2020 or beyond.

Craig McCord, the Para-swimming national coach, said the idea was to help the Para-swimmers prepare for the busy summer ahead while instilling in the younger group an appreciation of the work ethic needed to succeed.

“We integrated so they could see what sort of level of performance and how the guys on that track are training and sort of measure themselves on their performance at the camp with the other group,” said McCord.

The training also laid the groundwork as the Para-swimmers prepared for two major competitions. A team of up to 26 athletes will compete at the IPC Swimming World Championships July 13-19 in Glasgow, Scotland. They will have a brief break before being joined by another 15 swimmers for the Toronto Parapan Am Games Aug. 7-15.

The swimmers competing in the two events will be selected during the Can Am Para-swimming Championships, March 20-22 in Toronto.

“We’ll go through a full rest and taper in preparation to perform as optimally as we can at the world championships, then we’ve got to bring them back in 14 days or less, reload them, and be ready go on home soil again,” said McCord.

“It’s a huge summer for us.”

Morgan Bird, one of six athletes in the Rio Podium group, praised the camp’s environment.

“The training atmosphere was perfect,” said the 22-year-old from Calgary. “The athletes all had a common goal in mind. We helped each other in terms of being professional and reaching our goals.

“There also is a lot of one-on-one coaching. We figured out what we needed to do. If a person needed to take some time off, or do an extra set, that was available.”

Tess Routliffe, a 16-year-old from Caledon, Ont., is part of a 13-member group called 2020 Target for Smart Track. For her, the camp helped develop the mental strength the swimmers will need this summer.

“You’re with all the people you are probably going to be with during the worlds and the Pan Ams,” said Routliffe, who will compete at both events. “It gets you used to the surroundings.

“You’re not going in alone and scared. It’s nice to be able to go in together as a team.”

McCord said while fitness is important, proper technique was stressed during the training sessions.

“When you have athletes with disabilities, it really gets down to who can hold their technical status the longest in the race,” he said. “If you have two athletes of equal fitness, it’s the one with superior technical abilities that is going to win that race.

“We do a lot of really long, slow swimming where we spent a lot of time working on technique and making them technically proficient.”

Both Bird and Routliffe have been pre-selected for the world championship and Parapan teams, but that doesn’t mean they will take the trials lightly.

“You can still learn how to race better and see where you are at with your racing technique going into worlds,” said Routliffe.

McCord said it’s important to groom young Para-swimmers and resist the temptation to rush their development.

“There is a tendency when we get good athletes to try and fast-track them, jump to light speed too soon. When that happens we tend to skip development steps.”

He points to Routliffe as an example of someone who shouldn’t be rushed.

“Could we get this person to a podium by fall of 2016?” he said. “Maybe.

“But what it really boils down to is, I would rather have her win two or three medals in 2020 over one medal in 2016. Sometimes those are the decisions you have to make, to make sure to they stay in the sport. We’ve had over the years a lot of competitors who are one games and out.”

McCord said Para-swimmers like Samantha Ryan of Saskatoon and Gordon Michie of St. Thomas, Ont., show similar potential.

“There is the opportunity here for a lot of athletes to have longer careers if we handle them properly,” he said.

“It think it’s just making sure we want them in for the long haul and not a one-and-out.”

Routliffe stands four-foot-three and weighs 108 pounds. She sometimes is referred to as “a little person” but is comfortable with the term dwarf.

“A lot of dwarfs are leaning toward little people now,” she said. “To be honest I don’t care. It doesn’t really matter to me.”

Routliffe grew up loving the water but didn’t begin competitive swimming until three years ago. Last year, at the Pan Pacific Para-swimming Championships she won a silver medal in the S7 100-metre breaststroke, plus posted four fifth-place finishes and a sixth.

The Grade 11 student said swimming has improved her confidence.

“It gives me self-esteem,” she said. “Academically, to be honest, I’m not a star. I’ve always struggled in school. My sisters are pretty smart. They get really high grades. I always have been competing against them, trying to be as good as them.

“Swimming has really helped me find my place, find what I was good at.”

The world championships will attract 650 swimmers from more than 50 countries. The Parapan Am games will feature 1,608 athletes from 28 countries competing in 15 sports. All sports will be Paralympic qualifiers for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.