By Jim Morris
Battling to overcome pain, frustration and questions about her career has made Brittany MacLean a better swimmer.
It’s been a long journey for the 20-year-old from Etobicoke, Ont., but she heads into the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, rejuvenated in both body and spirit. Swimming at the Commonwealth Games gets underway Thursday, with live coverage on cbcsports.ca/glasgow2014 and daily highlight shows being broadcast on CBC TV.
“I’m a totally different athlete and person than I was last year,” MacLean said. “I was able to use the struggles I experienced to help me move forward this year.
“I struggled a lot last year both in the pool and a little mentally. After going through all of that I wasn’t sure how good this was going to be. Now I have a whole new love for the sport and whole new perspective on how bad I want it. This year I have given it everything I’ve got and I’m hoping for some exciting results in the summer.”
MacLean spent the last two seasons dealing with a nagging right shoulder injury and also a hamstring problem she suffered at the 2013 Canadian trials in Victoria. That resulted in her swimming just the 4×200-m relay at last summer’s FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Spain.
MacLean returned to school at the University of Georgia last fall and diligently worked at rehab. Feeling strong again, she helped lead the Bulldogs to repeat as women’s Division 1 NCAA champions. MacLean won two national titles and was named the SEC and NCAA Female Swimmer of the Year.
“I owed a lot to them (Georgia) because they stood by me when I was struggling,” said MacLean. “I really wanted to perform for the team.”
She carried that momentum into the Canadian trials for the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships teams, winning the 800-metre freestyle in a Canadian record time of eight minutes, 24.91 seconds. That sliced 2.68 seconds off the old mark Brittany Reimer set in 2005.
“By the time trials came around I was tired but I knew how well I was swimming,” said MacLean. “I came to nationals with a smile on.
“I had some great results and I look to improve on those in the coming weeks. I really want to do something special by representing Canada with the Maple Leaf on my cap.”
She will also swim the 200-m, 400-m and 4×200 free relay at the Games.
One of the lessons MacLean learned this year was how to manage her body. Every day she does exercises to keep her shoulder and hamstring healthy.
“It was really hard for me mentally to never miss a day in my rehab,” she said. “If I kept consistent on that I felt like I had that edge that was going to keep me healthy.”
MacLean’s regime involves lifting small weights and working with the stretch cord for her shoulder. She uses an exercise ball to strength the hamstring. The routine used to take an hour by now lasts about 30 minutes. She also visits a physiotherapist or chiropractor once a week.
“It hasn’t been perfect,” said MacLean. “Both my leg and my shoulder have their off days and their great days. I haven’t been limited in the pool and that’s been great.
“I don’t know necessarily if my rehab plan is what helped, or if I just naturally got better. It’s been motivation since I’ve been able to swim well. I wouldn’t say I’m pain free all the time but it’s pain I can handle.”
Feeling stronger physically has also helped MacLean mentally.
“When you are injured and out of the pool it’s really discouraging,” she said. “As soon as I got better with something, something else would happen. I would start to get excited about being back in shape again, then I would have to back up.
“It was like one step forward and two steps back. I had to really focus and pay attention to little things. For a while I would try to work through too much. It would end up harming me in the long run.”
MacLean’s confidence also took a boost with a pair of victories over American Missy Franklin, a four-time Olympic gold medallist. MacLean beat Franklin in the 400-m freestyle at the Zajac Canada Cup in May in Vancouver and in the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA championships.
“Missy is a great competitor,” said MacLean. “She is one of the best swimmers in the world. It was kind of an honour to race her.”
During her career MacLean has competed at two world championships and an Olympics, but this will be her first Commonwealth Games.
“I’m excited for my first Commonwealth Games,” she said. “It’s a games atmosphere which always makes everything more exciting.
“I’ve had a great year so far and I’m just going off of momentum. I’ve been training hard. I’m expecting to perform well. Anytime I get to represent Canada it’s fun. Hopefully it’s an experience that I will be able to look back on and be happy with.”