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Canadian champion has journeyed through desert en route to worlds

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Although she’s spent most of her life living in other countries, Kate Sanderson has always dreamed of swimming for Canada.

By Nathan White

She’s swam in the desert, and through some extremely dry times in her personal life. She’s had swimming almost taken away from her, overcome and ascended to new heights, with more goals yet to achieve. The pursuit of those goals continues at the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, Korea, where Open Water competition begins Saturday (Friday evening in Canadian time zones), with the 19-year-old set to swim in the 10-km, 5-km and 5-km team relay events.

Sanderson, her older brother Luke, and younger sister Claire were all born in Toronto before the family relocated to Indiana when she was three. By age 11 she was showing promise in the sport when her father Mark got a major opportunity to work in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi had few pools, and fewer still that would allow women to swim unrestricted. Despite her age, Sanderson took it upon herself to find a lane wherever and whenever she could.

She would often swim on her own, or alongside much slower men at a fledgling swim club. She remembers getting “What is she doing here?” looks walking into a pool full of men as an athletic blonde teenage girl from North America. One of the pools she found was 140 km to the northeast in Dubai, meaning she and her mother Jaqueline would spend about three hours driving for her to swim an hour and a half.

Their first breakthrough came when they found an American school in Abu Dhabi with a small team that allowed her to join their training group. The challenge was that practice ran until 7:30 a.m., with Kate expected at her school (25 minutes away on a good day) by 8. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity, she turned the backseat of the family’s Nissan Armada into her change room and breakfast nook in order to make it to school on time.

“She literally dried herself, brushed her hair and dressed in the car while it was moving. And ate,” Jaqueline Sanderson recalls. “I would be like, ‘Don’t get changed, there’s a bus coming and they can see in the car, wait, wait, OK, there’s a gap coming up.’ It was quite funny at the time.”

“I’d be like, ‘Is it safe to change?’ trying to put on my school uniform,” Kate says with a laugh. “I had a tie, plaid skirt, button-up shirt. It wasn’t even an easy uniform to get on in a car. That’s kind of a funny memory because of the stuff we had to do to be able to swim and go to school.”

After a year in Abu Dhabi, the family moved to nearby Qatar, where she found a more established program with coaches Evgeny Stolyarov and Raul Bernal. It opened the door to international competitions and the next step in her swimming development, but at one point her commitment became focused in unhealthy ways.

Sanderson was with her mother during a swim meet in Wales when she collapsed in their hotel room.

“I didn’t fall hard, just to the floor, and my mom was there,” Sanderson recalls.

The teenager had been struggling with an eating disorder, and the incident in Wales showed her parents how serious it had become.

“My parents, I don’t think they wanted to be like, ‘She’s really sick.’ At that point we thought it was under control. That was like the turning point,” Sanderson says. “I didn’t swim the rest of the competition, my parents flew me home and that was the beginning of when I stopped swimming.”

Sanderson’s symptoms included fainting spells and vision problems. The family sought help from medical professionals in Qatar and back home in Canada. As part of the treatment, her parents made the tough decision to enforce a ban on swimming training until Kate started eating more and returning to a healthy weight.

“When it first started I was like 125 pounds at 14, and I went down to like 89. It was really bad,” Sanderson says. “There’s no way you can be exercising. That was the hardest thing for me because swim was always something that gave me joy.

“The end of seventh grade and pretty much all of eighth grade I was in and out of the water. There was a period that I didn’t swim for like five and a half months. I was really sick.”

At the same time, the goal of returning to the pool eventually motivated her to overcome the disorder. Mark Sanderson still has the “beautiful letter” his daughter wrote him making an impassioned plea to allow her to swim again.

The teenage girl wrote “that swimming was going to make her stronger, she needed to do it, and that was her joy and what she did. That she could not be not doing it, and that Jaqueline and I were just wrong,” Mark says.

“I said (to myself), ‘It’s the only way I’m going to get back in the pool, I need to get weight on.’ My dad would make me shakes with like 1,000 calories in them and I can remember they tasted so bad. Once I put on some weight they started letting me swim a little bit at a time,” Sanderson says. “Then once I started swimming again I had more appetite and more motivation because I wanted to do it again tomorrow and enjoyed it a lot more. Within four or five months I was 15 pounds heavier.”

The family moved again in 2015, this time to Colorado Springs. And while she hadn’t completely overcome her eating disorder, Kate embraced healthier habits in a new environment, where her new coach Mike Doane became an important positive influence.

Doane, now 71, has coached Olympians in the pool and in triathlon, but admits he was out of his depth when it came to eating disorders.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to pretend to understand what that’s all about. I just know you have a lot of potential and you have to be healthy.’ I think over time she bought into that,” Doane says.

“He was always non-judgmental and was helping me work through it,” says Sanderson, who gradually got healthier and healthier in Colorado. “The support system I had was enough for me to recover. For a really long time I never wanted to talk about it. Now I just regret feeling embarrassed about it because I know it’s something people shouldn’t be embarrassed or scared to talk about.”

By 2017, Sanderson qualified for a U.S. junior national team, and had a decision to make between her American and Canadian citizenship. There was never doubt in her mind which country she wanted to represent.

“Since I moved around so much, I always identified myself as Canadian. Home would be where I would go for vacations, for Christmas. All my family lives there,” she says. “That’s the place we go when you wanted to celebrate.”

Her grandmother, aunt and uncle on her mother’s side live in the Toronto area, and more than a dozen family members on her father’s side are in Port Elgin, Ont., on Lake Huron. In April 2018, her grandmother and aunt travelled to Montreal to watch her first competition in Canada, the 2018 Canadian Swimming Championships.

She qualified for the FINA World Junior Open Water Championships, then went on to the Canadian Swimming Trials in Edmonton, where she swam a personal best 16:30.83 in the 1,500 and made the team for the senior Pan Pacific Championships. Sanderson followed up with a 16:33.16 to finish 13th in the 1,500 at Pan Pacs, and gained experience with a 10th-place finish in the 10-km open water marathon. That set her up for an eighth-place finish at the world juniors, despite fighting off illness.

Mark Perry, Swimming Canada’s distance/open water coach, wasn’t surprised when she solidified her spot on the senior national team by winning the 10-km race at the Canadian Open Water Swimming Trials in April on Grand Cayman. Sanderson, who had led most of the race, made a tactical move to draft behind the men’s pack when it passed the women. That extended her lead and cemented her victory.

Perry was encouraged to see her applying what she learned from just a year of open water experience, which also included a camp based around the Best Fest in Mallorca, where swimmers received race analysis and learned tactics.

“She’s obviously consolidated all that experience and been able to come to the Trials and use her experience and actually make our world championships team for the first time,” Perry says. “I think she’s very mature and very driven. When you talk to her you realize she’s got great ambitions and she’s prepared to do the work to achieve those ambitions.”