MONTREAL – One of Canada’s greatest Paralympians is hanging up her goggles.
After several months of consideration, Montreal’s Valerie Grand’Maison made the announcement today that she is retiring at the top of her game. The visually impaired swimmer leaves the sport with nine Paralympic medals, including four golds, headlining a long list of international accomplishments for Canada.
The 25-year-old’s fondest memories are bookended by Paralympic gold: starting with the 100-metre butterfly S13 at the 2008 Games in Beijing, a Canadian sweep that saw Kirby Cote take silver and Chelsey Gotell bronze.
“Although the race itself is a blur, I do remember vividly the gut-wrenching pre-race jitters and the flowing tears of joy as I stood on the highest step of the podium for the first time,” Grand’Maison said.
She also lists her 200-m individual medley gold in London two years ago as another career highlight.
“This represents the culmination of years of injuries and perseverance, a success I shared with the amazing 2012 Paralympic swim team and my family,” she said.
Craig McCord, Swimming Canada’s national Para-swimming coach, said Grand’Maison’s retirement will leave a hole in the national team, but the example she set will continue to inspire the next generation.
“From the first that time that ‘VGM’ was member of the national swim team she was a leader and a contributor,” he said. “She set the bar high for all members of the women’s squad and led through her actions. She will be greatly missed, and we wish her luck in her future endeavors.”
After London, Grand’Maison went on to star in and out of the pool at the 2013 IPC World Championships in Montreal. Entering with 13 world championships medals and six world records to her credit, the hometown girl faced added pressure and additional media attention as the event was held in North America for the first time.
She excelled yet again. Grand’Maison was the first Canadian to win a gold medal on home soil, won a total of three gold medals (100-m butterfly, 100-m and 50-m freestyle) and one silver medal (200-m IM) and was recognized as the Team Aquatic Supplies Female Para-Swimmer of the Year.
While she delivered under the pressure and was one of the faces of the meet as it generated more broadcast coverage than any previous Para-swimming
event, something felt different. She continued to train on a semi-regular basis, but did not compete in the March trials for the upcoming Pan Pacific Para-swimming Championships, which run Wednesday to Sunday in Pasadena, Calif.
“After much soul searching, I am confident that my swimming career has come to an end. I am grateful to my teammates for their inspiration, to my friends and family for being there for me at all times, and for my support staff and their belief in me at times when I needed it most. Most importantly, thank you to all the coaches that helped me become the best swimmer and person I could be,” she said.
She highlighted Pierre Lamy, who encouraged her to embark on the Paralympic journey and taught her about “the eye of the tiger,” as well as Peter Carpenter of McGill University, who has coached her since 2009.
“Coming in to my new role at McGill it was such a relief to have someone like Val who could raise the level of intensity and professionalism so much,” Carpenter said. “As a coach we see ourselves as teachers but I can say that I am sure I learned as much from her as she did from me. I will miss having her around, just as I am sure that her presence and leadership will be missed on the national team.
“It was a real pleasure to be on the same national team as Val for all those years,” added national team veteran and fellow Montrealer Benoit Huot. “She was an incredible leader in and outside of the pool. We will be missing her on the team getting ready (for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro). She had an amazing career and I will remember her as a great friend. We wish her the best in her new life outside of the pool. Thanks for all those memories Val!”
Grand’Maison, who holds a degree in psychology from McGill University, will be pursuing a Masters in Global Health at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. She has experience working with people with addictions and volunteering in developing countries. Her future plans include continuing to travel the world in her professional life, and giving back to the Paralympic movement in some sort of leadership role.
“This gets me really excited about the future. And very scared,” she said with a laugh.