By Nathan Sager
Martha McCabe readily relates to the notion it is often easier to be a chaser than a defender.
The 2012 Olympic finalist and 2011 World Championship bronze medallist in women’s 200-metre breaststroke rejoined the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre – Vancouver for the Rio 2016 cycle. Now 26, the Torontonian believed that moving back west with coach Jozsef Nagy, who mentored her in the five-year lead-up to the London 2012 Games, might provide that elusive edge. McCabe will get proof of whether the move worked when she competes at the April 5-10 Canadian Olympic & Para-swimming Trials, Presented by RBC at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.
“Sometimes staying on top is harder than getting to the top in the first place,” McCabe says. “And that’s what I’ve been trying to do is the past four years – maintain my position as the best 200 breaststroker in Canada. I’ve had challenges, obviously. Kierra Smith outswam me last year. It’s just about trying to swim my 200 breaststroke race and qualify for the team. That is the first step.
“I’m not sure why keeping that motivation can be hard,” said McCabe, who was fifth in the 200 breaststroke in London. “It’s a combination of one or two things. It ranges from maintaining that extremely high level of motivation and having a group around you to keep that up. From 2009 through ’11 and ’12, I had a group of female breaststrokers around me that was a good group, with world-record holder Annamay Pierse. That’s not to say the three years (at the High Performance Centre – Ontario) were worse – just different. Now it’s just about maximizing what is available to you.”
McCabe is wiser and more mature, but women’s 200-m breaststroke is a deep event for Canada, with Kelowna, B.C., native Smith coming off an eighth-place finish (2:22.82) at last year’s worlds.
“Three to five swimmers would be able to make the (FINA A standard of 2:26.94),” Nagy says. “The 200 breaststroke is deeper than the 100.
“I think she’ll be first or second.”
McCabe’s path since London 2012 offers proof of a more integrated network of athletes and coaches within Swimming Canada. She was barely 18 when she first moved to Vancouver to train and study at the University of British Columbia. During the Olympics she turned 23, and sensed an emotional tug to get back those years away from her native Southern Ontario.
HPC-Ontario “had just hired Ben Titley,” she relates. “We got along really well, (and I) wasn’t ready to come back to Vancouver. Ben taught me so many new things I hadn’t touched to that point.
“Ben is more of a sprint freestyle coach – he just had more of an outlook on the power and speed exercises, Joe really focuses on the aerobic and endurance capacity, in the 200 breaststroke specifically. Ben pushed me in ways I had not quite tried before – little differences and skills on the wall and diving and such.”
Coming into the last eight months before Trials, however, McCabe felt that International Swimming Hall of Famer Nagy could give her the push in her signature swim.
“Ben and Joe get along really well, and have a mutual respect for each other,” she says. “Even when I told Ben I was going back to Vancouver, he said, ‘I fully support that decision because I know Jozsef is the best breaststroke coach.’ He was so supportive of me coming back to Jozsef this year, as well.”
Nagy notes that he and McCabe needed about a week of assessment in September before they essentially picked up where they had left off three years earlier.
“I was very happy that she came back,” Nagy adds. “We know each other, have a routine with each other, she’s done very well in the last half of the year. I hope, and wish, that she will do very well again.
“Her influence on her teammates was better than it was. She has grown up. She is just professional now.”
Casual sports fans might only perk up at the sight of Canadians winning Olympic medals and qualifying for finals. The Olympic Trials are another strata of needing to perform on demand and win the day, as McCabe saw first-hand in 2012 when Pierse missed the Olympic team.
She relishes the challenge, and the pressure that comes with it.
“You can be the absolute best in the world, but if you don’t perform on that day, at that moment, your Olympic dreams are over, even if you swam the world record the week before,” she says. “That brings a new level of intensity – you could be the best for three years but it won’t matter if you’re not the best that day.”