By Jim Morris
TORONTO – Like a boxer training for a heavyweight bout, the national Para-swimming team is preparing to face a one-two punch of major competitions this summer.
A group of 25 or 26 athletes will represent Canada at the IPC Swimming World Championships, July 13-19 in Glasgow, Scotland. That group will then be joined by another 14 to 15 swimmers and compete at the Toronto Parapan Am Games Aug.
The swimmers competing in the two events will be selected during the Speedo Can Am Para-swimming Championships Friday through Sunday in Toronto.
The Can Ams will feature more than 200 swimmers from 11 countries and nine Canadian provinces. Preliminary heats start at 9:30 a.m. each day, with finals set for 6 p.m. each night. Friday’s evening session will begin with opening ceremonies at 5:45 p.m., with Pickering-Scarborough East MP Corneliu Chisu welcoming all participants on behalf of the Government of Canada. All sessions of the meet will be webcast live. For more information, visit www.swimming.ca
Swimming Canada’s able-bodied athletes have become accustomed to going into the ring at competitions just weeks apart, but for most Para-swimmers this will be a new and challenging experience.
“I have never done two major events in such a short period of time,” said Tess Routliffe, 16, of Caledon, Ont., who won a silver medal in the S7 100-metre breaststroke at last year’s Pan Pacific Para-swimming Championships in Pasadena, Calif.
“That was the biggest meet I had done then. It was one meet and I was finished. It’s going to be a lot different this summer going from worlds to Pan Ams. It’s going to be new. I will have to see what happens.”
Morgan Bird of Calgary has an idea what to expect. Last summer the 22-year-old was one of three Canadian Para-swimmers to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where she just missed the podium in the S8 100-m freestyle. She went on to win a silver and a bronze medal at the Para Pan Pacs.
“You just have to get in the right mindset for it, just think positive,” said Bird.
“Once one is done don’t think of it as you are done. You have to keep going. You still have to perform well at the next one.”
To help prepare them for the busy summer the Para-swimmers attended a training camp in Plantation, Fla.
Craig McCord, the Para-swimming national coach, said the camp combined both athletes targeted for the podium at the 2016 Rio Paralympics plus a group earmarked for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“This is one of the things we tried to do is to get these guys a boost going into the trials situation and help them progress towards the podiums,” said McCord, who has been overseeing the Para-swimming program since 2004.
“It’s a big factor as we lead into the trials and then as we go into a very busy summer.”
The goal of the camp was to work on fitness and technique.
“Everything thing is a lot of repetition, repetition, repetition,” said McCord.
“One of the big things we talk about as a technical staff is reliability of performance. How many times can you do the same thing over and over again at the same level or better. Anytime you are doing a preparation it should be the exact same preparation that you are going to do in the end.”
McCord said the training done at the camp is like laying a solid foundation prior to building a house.
“It all sort of piles up and builds on one another,” he said. “You are constantly building a wall, putting a new layer of bricks on it, making the wall stronger.”
The intensity of the camp can create challenges for some athletes. For Bird, who was born with cerebral palsy which affects the left side of her body, dealing with fatigue is a factor.
“If I get tired it affects it more,” she said. “I drag my foot more.
“I have learned how to adjust my workouts so that doesn’t happen. It’s happened before where I dig myself a hole. If I work too much and too hard in a week, I find I’m really exhausted by the end.”
Bird, a member of the Cascade Swim Club, has worked with her coaches to find a schedule that suits her needs.
“If that means taking a practice off they are very lenient,” she said. “If I come to practice looking more tired than usual, they work with me to figure out what needs to get done, what’s appropriate and what’s not during workouts.”
McCord said Para-swimmers who are amputees or missing a limb train basically the same as able-bodied athletes. Athletes like Bird, who deal with neurological conditions, need special attention.
“The more you train Morgan, the more compromised her electrical system gets,” said McCord. “The electrical system takes longer to recharge. It takes longer to recharge than the muscles do.
“We have to start the process of preparing Morgan probably seven to 10 days before we start resting someone who is missing an arm or a leg because we have to let the electrical system recharge.”
Bird is one of seven women pre-selected to compete at the world championships. That hasn’t dampened her desire to perform well at the Can Ams.
“It’s always been on my mind,” she said. “It’s never going to go away.
“I’m always thinking about what I can do in order to be at my best in trials. It is very important to me to do well there and making Canada proud, to keep my spot on the team. That is the most important thing for me now.”
The world championships will attract 650 swimmers from over 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.