2004 CIS Swimming Championships

Swimming is an intensely individual sport where athletes–isolated by lane ropes and chlorinated water–focus on personal best times and individual ranking. A dedicated breed, swimmers train as much as 20 hours a week in repetitious and grueling fashion to shave off mere hundredths of a second in races ranging from 50 to 1,500 meters.


Outside the pool, they sport chlorinated hair, team bomber jackets and unlaced sneakers. Their food expenses double that of a family of four. Within the pool walls they wear skin-tight suits, shave their hair and boast bodies worthy of sculpture.


Who are these quietly beautiful, masochistic individuals and what is their motivation?


This is the culmination of a year of hard work and struggle. The swimmers here have passed the test, achieved their goals and now they convene in Canada’s largest city, home of the CN Tower, the Skydome, MuchMusic and the University of Toronto swimming pool.


Day 1: Records and rivalry

It’s 10 a.m. and rivalry swarms through the water, onto the deck and into the humid air above the swimming pool. This rivalry is not, however, of the quiet individual kind. In the paradox that is this breed, these athletes will swim for the team this weekend.


“This meet is a lot more fun than other varsity meets. The others are about the individual. This one is about the team,” says second-year Dino Juliana Heinz on the morning of the first session.


Two-hundred-eighty-five qualifiers, 27 university teams coast-to-coast and two main rivals–the University of Calgary Dinos and University of British Columbia Thunderbirds–who square off in historic competition that has seen narrow T-Bird victories six years running.


The odds favour UBC, the team had five more swimmers qualify for the meet, but the competitive atmosphere in the Dinos section does not falter. In fact, save for a quietly keen eye counting yellow T-Bird caps, the Dinos do not discriminate against other teams–individual events will rouse loud cheers to beat out anyone in adjacent lanes.


“It’s a good meet to see where you are. You’re swimming individually, but you’re doing it for the team,” says Erin Gammel.


Gammel is the top-ranked woman in CIS swimming, and while this meet marks the end of her varsity year, it is only the first of many testing competitions before the Olympic Games in Athens.


The 50m backstroke starts and Gammel jumps into the pool, easily racing to a new CIS record. The swim comes after an almost sleepless night of recovering from jet-lag, the result of a speedy trip back from training in Australia with the national team.


“I was so surprised this morning!” exclaims Gammell, clearly pleased with the swim that earned her Swimmer of the Day for Friday.


Evening comes, and finals only quicken the pace and energy of this committed bunch. As much as the swimmers each excel in their own event–first place finishes for Cameron Hyder in the 200m freestyle, Emma Spooner in the 100m breast-stroke, Carrie Burgoyne in the 400m individual medley–a very particular pattern surfaces in the Dinos racing habits.


These swimmers race in heaps, clearly dominating certain events in what is most certainly a successful philosophy of intimidation and team strength. The men’s 400m IM, won by Chad Murray, followed by Hyder, and then Richard Cormack, leads the way in this particular tactic at the Toronto pool.


At the end of the day, however team points add up and the Dinos need more than strong first races and “sweep” events to outdo the competition–the T-Birds come out on top.


Day 2: Ritual is key

‘”If it worked the first time, it will work the next” was Gammel’s strategy early on in Saturday’s events, as she raced to a first-place finish in the 100m backstroke, again touching with a new CIS record.


“That’s so good for me!” exclaims a giddy Gammel, who went on to win Swimmer of the Day–again.


The Dinos women’s medal sweep in the 200m race followed Gammel’s motto. Kristy Cameron, followed by Spooner and Dena Durand, skillfully perfected the domineering technique of the men’s 400m IM medal victory the day before.


Lone successes were also present, as Burgoyne accepted gold in the 200m butterfly and Murray flexed his victorious muscles in the 50m butterfly. Apparently, each swimmer is entitled to their own preference of victory.


“I’d rather choose [the 50m] than the mile,” Murray points out in his winning speech.


Murray’s statement is certainly not representative of the distance swimmers.


“That’s the funnest thing about swimming–you let them get out in front, and then you catch up to them in the end,” reveals Willie Durban, who swam to sixth place and a best time in the 400m freestyle, behind teammates Hyder and Cormack who placed fourth and first, respectively.


The night ends with team relays, where signs of weakness are noticeable in the Dinos squadron.


“I’m going to chew my nails off on this one,” says a nervous Gammel as the last Dino dives into the men’s 4X200m freestyle relay, taking first place in front of the T-Birds.


Day 3: The bittersweet end
By this point, the Dinos have quietly admitted to the reigning T-Bird status quo, refraining from discussing the subject and focusing solely on getting as many swimmers into the finals as possible.


The preliminaries end on a masochistic note as the men dive into the pool for the 1500m distance event. What would seem like a dreary, lonesome and grueling event quickly becomes the highlight of the morning as Durban and Jonathan Schjott rouse persistent cheers, swimming best times in the underdog outside lanes of the pool.


“Good swim, Willie,” says Natalie Vloet, who had just finished her 800m distance event.


“You had a solid swim, too,” replies Durban in humble fashion.


“Yeah, it hurt like a bitch,” she confirms.


And so it all comes to an end. Certain Dinos excel in their own single events, others work to dominate entire categories. Echoes of Erin “CIS record backstroker” Gammel, Chad “flex it IM” Murray and Richard “distance king” Cormack permeate the pool.


The Dinos fly back to Calgary. Some will continue training earnestly for the competitive meets of the next few months, in hopes of record times and Olympic heights, while others will hang their suits up for the season to focus on school, summer and other pursuits.


Others still will bid farewell to the sport that has shaped so much of their character, their friendships and their lifestyle. They take leave of a truly rare atmosphere, molded by extraordinarily high expectations and constant intensity.


The CIS Swimming Championships are but a glimpse into the life of a Dino swimmer. The rewards of just being in the presence of such intense and supportive atmosphere puts life into a whole new perspective.

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