Keep Swimming: Three Team Canada swimmers on their veteran approach to sport and life – Team Canada

AP Photo/Fernando Vergara – Andrew Lahodynskyj/COC – Candice Ward/COC

Canada’s women’s swimming program has been a medal powerhouse for the country in recent years. Many swimmers view the team’s success at Rio 2016 as a turning point, but the depth of Canadian women’s swimming had to build for years to get to this point, and has continued to flourish with the development of young talents. recently sat down with Katerine Savard, Sydney Pickrem and Mary-Sophie Harvey – who between them have competed in six Olympic Games – for an in-depth discussion about their careers and lives, the state of the Canadian swimming and the keys to longevity as athletes. Katerine, it seemed like you were going to talk about career a few years ago, but you kept going. What motivates you ?

KS: I was thinking about retiring in 2016, when I hit a bit of a downturn. I felt like I no longer knew what my dream was. So I had to find something I was looking for and that helped me continue through 2020. Now my dream is to be the first Canadian swimmer to go to four Olympic Games!

Katerine Savard looks at the water as she slides in it
Canada’s Katerine Savard trains at the Tokyo Aquatics Center ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 20, 2021. Photo by Mark Blinch/COC

And I do this for me. I want to prove to myself that I can still be one of the best swimmers in the world, even as I get older. I’ve been with the national team for about 15 years and I’m still going! What have you learned about yourself over the years as you become a veteran of the team? Do you consider yourself a leader?

KS: I don’t know if I consider myself a leader. I think my teammates teach me things every day, even though they are younger.

P.S.: I think you’re more of a leader than you think, especially because you swim so many relays. And I think you lead more than you think just because you’re always happy. You can count on her. She’s always going to step up and do it.

KS: THANKS. I can be very hard on myself sometimes.

SP: Yeah, we know that too [chuckles].

MSH: Yeah, she’s not going to show off at all. You have all experienced different difficulties throughout your career. In what ways did you overcome these difficult times?

SP: My own struggles have definitely been mental health related. It was like there was Sydney the person, Sydney the swimmer, Sydney the teammate and Sydney the leader. To me, they were all separate entities.

For a long time, I didn’t even care about Sydney, the person. The focus was entirely on Sydney, the swimmer. Then, when my own mental health didn’t agree with that, I felt like I had no identity. So for me the work has been about integrating the two and bringing that to the forefront while knowing that they are not separate entities.

Sydney Pickrem pumps her fist while holding on to the pool wall
Sydney Pickrem of Canada competes in the women’s 200m breaststroke final during the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games, Monday, October 23, 2023. Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/COC

I’ve had times where I’ve had to stop swimming and distance myself. I had a lot of guilt because I couldn’t be there for my teammates and my coaches, and I thought, “Oh my God, they’re going to hate me.” But my therapist asked me, “What do you think your coaches will say if you decide not to run now?” Will they love you less? And I’m like no, of course not. And it’s as clear as day, but in the moment, it’s just not the case.

I have truly surrounded myself with such a team now including my psychologist, my psychiatrist and my coaches. If I swim very well and I’m happy, of course it’s the perfect combination. But if I’m happy and it doesn’t flare up, then, you know, I can live the rest of my life being happy.

But it is also a never-ending battle. Someone recently asked me, “Oh, is everything behind you now?” Anxiety, depression? I was like no. Every day I have to check in. It’s a daily process, but I’m enjoying the ride more than ever. I love sport. I want to become a coach after my athletic career. And so yes, it’s a trick baby!

MSH: I think sometimes we forget that we are human and just think of ourselves as athletes who need to perform. We have a goal and we think it will be a straight line to achieve it, but it never is.

For me personally, in recent years I have had to rediscover the love of sport. I’m in a much better place right now because I’m not necessarily competing for results, but I’m competing for the love of the sport.

Three swimmers kiss on the pool deck
Mary-Sophie Harvey of Canada celebrates with her teammates after winning the gold medal in the women’s 4 x 100m medley relay during the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games, Wednesday, October 25, 2023. Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/COC

Father: Looking back on who you were as young athletes, what advice would you give to yourself now that you’ve all been through so much?

KS: I would say there are different paths to get to the top. Sometimes we see the easiest or most beautiful path in certain athletes, but there are many different ways to get to the top.

MSH: What I tell kids now is that medals shouldn’t define your career. It’s more about the journey. Sometimes as we get older we tend to focus more on performance and we tend to forget why we started in the first place, which was for the love of sports. And I think it’s a good reminder to keep in mind that you’re doing this because you love this sport.

This is not only the biggest piece of advice I give to kids, but it’s also what’s helping me get through it right now. I focus on my love for sports.

SP: I always tell the children that I couldn’t tell you my best times, I couldn’t tell you what place I got in so many competitions. But I can tell you about the memories I made, the random stories with my teammates and all of our crazy experiences. That’s what I’m going to remember and that’s what I’m going to value.

Father: You talk about creating memories with your teammates and obviously you’re all experienced athletes. Do you have a favorite moment as a Team Canada fan, outside of your own competitions, that you’re really excited about?

SP: Yeah, I do! In 2017 [at the World Aquatics Championships] I ended up getting out [of the pool] during my 200 IM because I choked on water. At the time, I was like oh my god, this isn’t happening. Like, what just happened?

It definitely affected me more than I wanted. The World Cup is a long meeting; this had happened on the second day and I was running again on the eighth day. But halfway through the meeting, Kylie [Masse] I competed in a 100m backstroke final and one of my coaches told me, “You have to go. Just go sit in the stands and embark on the journey that awaits you.

So I went up to the stands and watched his final. And when I saw her break a world record, I was like, “Holy shit! He’s one of my best friends! It was such a cool moment and it brought me back into the competition that I was so far away from.

Hungarian gold medalist Katinka Hosszu is flanked by Spanish silver medalist Mireia Belmonte, left, and Canadian bronze medalist Sydney Pickrem during the ceremony for the women’s 400-meter individual medley final at the swimming competitions of the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday July 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

I don’t think she realizes what a change it was for me. I won a medal on the eighth day [in the 400m IM] and without that moment of embracing the team, the sport and what it was, I don’t think I would have been able to recover from it. So this one is very close to my heart.

KS: I would say in 2016 [at the Olympic Games]the first day of swimming, the day the girls won [bronze in the 4x100m freestyle relay], I was in the stands. It was the first time I really realized it was possible to win a medal – for the people I trained with every day. It was one of my favorite moments. I wasn’t even running, but I was looking at the girls and it changed my mind. I realized that if they could do this, I could do it too.

MSH: I wasn’t in Rio, but I was at the summer nationals at that time. Every evening we stopped running while they ran. So we saw every medal and the whole pool was screaming and clapping for you all. It was electric, even though we weren’t physically there.

That’s when it all began for the Canadian women’s swim team. And we’re still doing it right now.

Canada’s Taylor Ruck, from left, Brittany MacLean, Katerine Savard and Penny Oleksiak win bronze in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday (August 1). 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

[Editor’s note: It was the first time in 20 years that Canada had won an Olympic medal in any women’s swimming event.]

READ: A closer look at Canada’s swimming successes at Rio 2016

SP: Yeah, I think it was huge. In 2014, the attitude was: maybe we’ll get a medal at the Worlds? And there was this change in Rio and we created this new normal. Seeing this transformation was really cool. And it definitely inspires us, even though we are now part of these statistics.

MSH: Yeah yeah. It’s cool to be part of it. I can see young athletes being inspired by it and I think it’s a good boost for everyone – I mean, look at Summer. [McIntosh]! She was born when I started swimming in 2006. And now she is one of the best in the world.

I remember his mother telling me that she watched me grow up, because we did the same events. It’s crazy to me now because she’s like 20 seconds faster!

Savard and Pickrem will be in action at the 2024 World Aquatics Championships taking place in Doha, Qatar. Swimming events begin on February 11 and continue until February 18.

Although there is no direct Olympic involvement, swimmers can achieve times that make them eligible for Olympic team selection, which will be made after the 2024 Olympic Trials in May. Olympic qualification for the relays will be confirmed for each country after the world championships.

To see the Full Team Canada roster for Doha here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alec Dittman

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