By Marc Durand
Jean-Michel Lavallière shaved, took the bus and repeated the same routine he went through every day at a major competition. But on his final day of competition at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, each step of his routine came with a particular feeling, that it was the “last time.”
That was Lavallière’s mindset as he achieved one of the best performances of his career. The Paralympic veteran broke the Canadian SB7 50-m freestyle record by almost a second (30.14). His time still placed him just off the podium in fourth, but in his media interviews afterwards, he felt vindicated.
“They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I came to prove the opposite at 27 years old,” he said.
His coach Mike Thompson of the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre – Quebec was very happy with the result.
“I’m really proud of the work we did. (Missing the podium) was nothing that he did or nothing that we didn’t do. Other people just happened to be faster that day and quite honestly the people that were faster were already faster, where we caught up quite a bit. Jim did everything he possibly could,” Thompson said.
Lavallière has now decided to confirm the feeling those 50 metres were his last by officially announcing his retirement from competitive swimming.
“After the Commonwealth Games, I took a week’s rest in Australia and I found myself not thinking about the next goals,” Lavallière said. “When I returned, I spoke to Mike and my support team and it was then that I realized that I did not have much to gain, both as a person and in sport, to continue my career until the next Paralympic Games. ”
The man who holds nine Canadian records in his category and two more in relays – more than any other Canadian swimmer – leaves swimming as he has lived: head held high with no regrets.
“I ticked several boxes of my goals, including taking part in major multi-sport events. Whether it was at the Rio Olympics in which I had the chance to compete in the last event of the Games in front of 15,000 fans, the Parapan Am Games in front of a hometown crowd in Toronto (where he won six silver medals) or the Commonwealth Games,” he said.
Nothing predestined this boy from Quebec to enjoy so much success in the pool. In his first national competition, the 2005 Canada Games, he was disqualified in four of his six events.
“My friends Geneviève Saumur, Mathieu Bois and Charles Francis – all potential Olympic swimmers – wondered what I was doing there. I did the 50-m freestyle in one minute. Thirteen years later, I cut that time in half. Not everyone can say that. ”
“I’ve never seen such a determined swimmer,” said teammate Benoit Huot, an all-time Paralympic great. “Frankly, he was not naturally good at swimming at first. Everything he had to do to succeed, all the details to improve, he took them seriously. He never cut corners. His determination and stubbornness allowed him to get to the big Games. It’s really all to his credit.”
“Jim is one of the most dedicated athletes I’ve met,” Thompson added. “He was a huge asset to the team and our centre would not have been so successful without his presence.”
Lavallière has been weighing the decision to retire for the past few weeks.
“Mike has allowed me to take things at my own pace, letting me train a few days a week with the group, and it’s been a smooth transition. I took the opportunity to give back to the young generation, and I leave with my head held high, with a Canadian record at a major event. Plus I can tease my father, who’s 63 and still hasn’t retired yet.”
Born with a hemiparesis on his left side, his arm, his leg and his abdominal muscles, Lavallière found in swimming a ticket to an active life.
“Practising my sport allowed me to better know my body, to master it, and to enjoy all that life brought me. I have also developed a network of contacts around the world that will allow me to travel,” he said.
Lavallière expects he will especially miss the training camps, the camaraderie and the energy that develops among teammates.
“I’ll see them again, but it will not be with this common goal.”
After studying sports management at Laval University, he will complete a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology this fall. With his high-level athlete background, he would like to devote his professional career to the sports community. This summer, he is active at Center Claude-Robillard with Excellence Sportive de L’Ile de Montréal (MIST). He has a mandate to organize the ESIM Rendez-vous for athletes and to see the establishment of support teams for athletes identified as “next generation” and “elite.”
His friend Huot sees him growing quickly in this new career.
Lavallière plans to go one step at a time, but with determination, just like he did in the pool.
“So many people have focused on me to support me for 16 years. Now it’s my turn to give back for the next 40.”