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Olympic medallist Sandrine Mainville retires from competitive swimming

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On the podium at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Sandrine Mainville told herself all the hardships she had undergone since the beginning of her career, all the highs and lows, had all been worth it.

“I learned to turn negatives into positives, which helped me become the athlete I became. As I often say, everything happens for a reason,” Mainville says. “I always made decisions based on what was best for me.”

It is with the same certainty Mainville is making the decision to move on to the next stage of her life, beginning her career last month as a student-at-law with Borden Ladner Gervais, in Montreal.

“My state of mind has changed in the last couple of months; my head is elsewhere with the desire to start my professional career on the right foot. My motivation and my focus are now directed towards this new goal. I gave myself the last year to gradually say goodbye to swimming. I did not want to force anything. I’m glad the transition has been so easy; I’m moving on with no regrets.”

Rewind to April 2012, Montreal: Mainville failed in her attempt to qualify for the London Olympics by a tenth of a second. Disappointed, she was eager to turn the page to a new quadrennial. However, in October 2012, newly undertaking the Rio Olympic cycle, she sustained a shoulder injury that forced her out of the water. That kind of adversity might have discouraged another athlete, but Mainville showed her strength of character, determination, and resilience.

“I couldn’t swim for three months,” she says. “It’s hard mentally as an athlete to not be in control of your training, but I focused on what I could control. I viewed my injury as an opportunity to focus on my legs and come back stronger; my legs ended up becoming my strength.”

She went on to qualify for the national team in 2013 and 2014 but still felt she had more to learn and more to achieve. Seeking a change, she headed down the 401 to Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre – Ontario. This decision would prove hugely impactful for Mainville, the HPC group, and arguably the entire Canadian team.

” The decision to move was far from easy. I’d spent all my life in Montreal. I wasn’t fluent in English. I was in the middle of my degree at the University of Montreal. All of my family and friends were in Montreal. For five years I trained alongside Victoria Poon, my friend and mentor, and the Canadian record holder at the time. I tried to be as objective as possible, and in the end, decided I needed to do something different if I was ever going to step out of Vic’s shadow. It was important for me to know that when it would all be over, that I’d done everything in my power to achieve my goals. Let’s just say I got my wish.”

Coming together in Toronto under HPC Head Coach Ben Titley was a team that included Penny Oleksiak, Michelle Toro (née Williams), and Chantal Van Landeghem, who would accompany Mainville on her quest that culminated in an Olympic medal in the 4×100-m freestyle relay.

“I cannot say enough about how great Ben Titley is. He was exactly the coach I needed at that time in my career. I totally trusted him. Every aspect of his training and the workouts he wrote have specific meanings. He is extremely demanding, and never accepts less than your best. But he also has the gift of relaxing the atmosphere and keeping the mood upbeat around the pool,” says Sandrine.

Titley isn’t shy to extol the virtues of his former protégé, either.

“Sandrine is one of the most dedicated, conscientious athletes I have ever known. She challenged herself all the time. She inspires others to achieve standards. She sets the expectations so high for herself, in all the areas of her life. It’s a pleasure to work with someone like that. She sets standards here for swimming in Canada in lots of ways. A lot of credit goes to her to move out of Québec to take a risk and go further with her sport. Her courage, strength of determination, and resilience were her best factors as an athlete and as a person. If you could have a group of Sandrine Mainvilles, you would be very happy,” Titley says.

At the HPC, under Titley’s leadership, Mainville and her teammates would all progress, thanks to their talent, certainly, but also thanks to the esprit de corps that developed between them.

“It’s really the incredible chemistry and mutual trust we developed together at the High Performance Centre that made all the difference in Rio. It’s impossible to compare doing a relay with girls from all over the country, who you may not know, and girls you’ve been training with for two years. We all lived the same things together. We were pushing each other every day, always wanting to be the first to touch the wall. That made us all improve as swimmers. It is difficult to explain clearly with words… but having teammates waiting for you at the end of the pool who are counting on you will push you to go faster in the pool,” Mainville says. “We started to believe in the medal when all four of us made the team in April. There is a big difference between training to swim fast and training to win a medal at the Olympics. That was our main motivation during the months leading up to the Games.”

“During my career, I swam more relays than individual races. At first, I was a bit disappointed because the nature of the sport is individual. Hindsight, time, and experience have made me realize that my most beautiful moments of my career were undoubtedly the relay races with those girls.”

For Titley, there is no doubt that Mainville had a key role to play in this team, a role that went beyond the limits of the pool: “Sandrine was a huge part in building that culture of success, those standards of excellence, that team spirit, that ethos around the group. She helped create what it takes to have successful relay teams on the international level. It was the first time in 40 years that Canada had won medals in these events at that level. Sandrine was a key piece of that.”

Those comments also resonate with her teammates at the time.

“Practicing with Sandrine was incredibly inspiring. Everyone around her wanted to give more and improve. The way she was able to reach another level of intensity in training, while we were all exhausted, inspired us to do the same. I’m definitely a better swimmer because of her,” said quadruple Olympic medallist Penny Oleksiak.

“I couldn’t think of anyone better to lead our relay off in Rio than Sandy. She is one of the most consistent swimmers I know, and I had absolute trust in her ability to deliver a performance that could put us in medal contention,” added Chantal Van Landeghem.

A quiet leader in Rio’s bronze relay team, Mainville already admits to missing Toronto and “her” group (teammates, coaches, medical staff). Memories of hard training, stress before the Olympic qualification, laughter with “her” girls at Titley’s British accent, and all of his teachings will forever be remembered. But if a word could sum up her stay in Toronto, it might be the word “pride.”

“I am extremely proud of the fact that I always took charge when obstacles presented themselves. Doing what was best for my career guided every decision I’ve ever made. For me, the feeling of pride does not come from being an Olympic medallist, but rather from the process that led me to it.”

“When I think back to the interview I gave CBC the day after our medal, when my parents made a surprise live appearance on television, the first thing that comes to mind is pride. I have always wanted to make my parents proud. The emotion I felt in that moment sums up all the gratitude I had for them for always having my back.”

For Michelle Toro, there is no doubt that Mainville’s career as a lawyer will be as successful as her swimming career: “She is the most passionate and purposeful person and I know she is going to translate that into everything she does for rest of her life.”