July 22, 2014, Victoria, BC (ISN) – Coming off a 2013 World Championships bronze medal, 200-metre backstroker, Hilary Caldwell, prepares to perform again at this week’s Commonwealth Games.
Written by Lachlan Ross
Her right middle finger sports five linked gold loops. Another set of Olympic rings is inked into her left forearm. The jewelry is courtesy of Swimming Canada for making the 2012 London Games, the tattoo a memento of what thousands of hours in the pool can accomplish. Hilary Caldwell is no longer a big stage rookie.
Heading into this week’s Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Caldwell is amped to prove last year’s World Championships was more than just the perfect meet.
The 23-year-old from White Rock, B.C. broke the Canadian 200-metre backstroke record in three consecutive races on her way to a bronze medal finish. With the country’s first medal in the world championship event since 1978, she cemented her name among women’s swimming elite.
But while she appeared to pop up in the international swimming scene quickly – her first National team selection coming just one year earlier for the London Olympics – success didn’t come comfortably to Caldwell.
Since moving to Vancouver Island in 2009, she has swum for coach Randy Bennett’s Victoria Academy of Swimming. The Academy is made up entirely of Canadian team members like Ryan Cochrane and Julia Wilkinson – but Caldwell continued to miss the cut.
“I definitely went through a couple of rough years,” she says. “I was in a group with people who were always on the National team and I kept just missing it.”
In the lead up to London, coach Bennett changed Caldwell’s training program, increasing the time she spent on backstroke. Despite swimmers having strokes they focus on for events, most swim a variety of styles in practice.
“Probably ninety to ninety-five per cent of my metres are backstroke,” says Caldwell about the adapted practice plan. “I would say I’m one of the only people in the world doing that.”
The tedious hours spent almost solely on backstroke pushed her from a fringe member of the Canadian team to an international medalist. Though even after this accomplishment, her performance in London remains on her mind.
Caldwell failed to make it out of the heats, racing over a second-and-a-half slower than her Olympic qualifying time of 2:09.14 – which would have been fast enough to make the semi-final and final.
“You get to the Olympics and expect it to be your best race ever,” she says. “And it just wasn’t.”
“There is nothing to prepare a rookie for the Olympics,” says Canadian Olympic Hall of Famer, Leslie Cliff. “The media attention alone is crazy.”
Cliff, who won silver in the 400-metre individual medley at Munich’s 1972 Olympics and three gold and two silver medals at the 1971 Pan American Games, was paired with Caldwell as her Swim Canada mentor leading up to the London Games. Familiar with the discipline required to excel in the pool, Cliff says she is in awe of Caldwell’s work ethic and commitment to the sport.
“I wish I picked something easier or slightly more lucrative,” says Caldwell with a laugh after another couple of hours spent lifting weights in the gym. “Why didn’t my parents put me in tennis?”
This year Caldwell not only accepts the challenge of backing up last year’s bronze medal, she is also adding the 100-metre backstroke to her repertoire – though Caldwell is confident the addition to her race schedule should be an easy transition. Coach Bennett had her swim the hundred in the London and Barcelona warm-up pools in preparation for her 200-metre event later that week. At the World Championships, her time in the practice pool would have qualified for the semi-finals.
As Caldwell walks from the ready room to the pool deck this Friday, there will be more than just coach Bennett watching her swim the 100-metre race. Glasgow gives her the opportunity to inject herself into a new event, while keeping her name in conversations about her old one. Despite the absence of London and Barcelona gold medalist, Missy Franklin – due to America not competing in the Commonwealth Games – almost all of Caldwell’s international competition will be present.
The gold ring and bronze medal may not accompany Caldwell through the water, but knowing she is where she belongs – piercing the pool amongst the world’s best backstrokers – remains. By the week’s end, maybe a new medal will add to the accessories that decorate one of Swimming Canada’s finest.
See Hilary Caldwell compete:
Women’s 100-metre backstroke heats start at 3:33a.m. (PDT) Friday July 25.
Women’s 200-metre backstroke heats start at 2:34a.m. (PDT) Sunday July 27.