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National team members earn university honours amid COVID-19 pandemic

News –

The beginning of spring usually marks the start of the varsity award banquet season. The global COVID-19 pandemic, however, means this year’s award season is yet another routine that’s looking a lot different in 2020. With cancelled events across the globe, athletes aren’t able to dress up for a big night, receive their award in hand, or be recognized in person by their peers and coaches. That’s not stopping programs from recognizing their achievements though, and three Canadian swimmers have been recognized recently.

The annual University of Victoria Vikes’ Celebration of Champions banquet is among the events that had to be cancelled this year. The program still decided to honour their athletes by announcing the winners online.

Danielle Hanus of Newmarket, Ont., was named Female Athlete of the Year, a shared award with field hockey player, Anna Mollenhauer. This is Hanus’ second year in a row winning this award.

“It’s a really cool thing to win the award,” said Hanus. “I wasn’t really expecting it.”

Hanus continued her momentum from the summer, where she won four silver medals at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. She finished off the university season by winning four gold medals and setting a new U Sports record in the 200-m butterfly at the national championships in February.

Victoria native Eric Hedlin was also a big winner for the University of Victoria Vikes, winning the President’s Cup. This award is given annually to a student-athlete in their fourth or fifth year with the best combined scholastic achievement and athletic ability.

“I’m happy,” said Hedlin. “I was going into a Master’s program this year and I wanted to get my grades up.”

Hedlin has shown he’s successful in the water, winning a bronze medal in the 5-km event at the 2019 FINA World Championships in South Korea and capturing seven career U Sports medals. Even with all his training, he was still able to achieve an 8.0 GPA in his first year of his Computer Science Master’s program.

On the American university side, world champion Maggie MacNeil of London, Ont., was named a finalist for the 2020 Honda Sports Award for Swimming and Diving. The Swimming and Diving finalists were selected by a panel of coaches and experts from the Collegiate Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America (CSCAA).

“I’m excited,” said MacNeil, “it’s an honour to be nominated.”

MacNeil had the summer of a lifetime, when she beat the reigning world champ, Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, to win the gold medal in the 100-m butterfly at the 2019 FINA World Championships. MacNeil decided to head back to school in the fall and had a successful season being a six-time Big Ten Champion and earning Big Ten Swimmer of the meet in February. Unfortunately, her season was cut short when the 2020 NCAA Division 1 Women’s Championships were cancelled.

“I wish NCAAs could have happened, our team had a really great year and I was looking forward to that,” said MacNeil.

This past month has seen a slew of cancellations and postponements in the sporting world, including the postponement of the 2020 Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Trials, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. An event that all three athletes were hoping to book a ticket for.

“We saw it coming,” said Hanus, “but it was obviously still disappointing because we were all very excited to race and get up and swim and do well.”

MacNeil said the toughest part for her was when the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) decided they would not send a team if the Olympic Games took place in 2020.

“The hardest moment was when Team Canada pulled out because we weren’t sure if the Olympics would still go on without us,” said MacNeil.

However, she knew it was the right decision. “It was great that Team Canada took the initiative to make a decision,” said MacNeil.

Less than 48 hours after the COC’s decision, the International Olympic Committee eased everyone’s minds by postponing the Olympic Games to the summer of 2021.

Hanus sees the extra year as an opportunity to keep training and to keep working towards getting a spot on the national team.

“Knowing now that the Olympics are postponed a year, it’s kind of exciting because we get that little bit more to train and go get it again,” said Hanus.

Hedlin, who has been training to qualify in both the pool and open water competitions, says he’s disappointed he didn’t get to compete this year but that’s he’s focusing more on the journey.

“I’m making sure that I enjoy the process”, said Hedlin. “If things don’t go the way that I want them to in the end, that it’s still OK.”

Although the uncertainty about the Olympic Games has been cleared, the athletes are trying to navigate the best way to keep training while all training facilities and pools are closed.

“I’m doing the best I can,” said Hanus. “It’s weird living in a time not really knowing when you’re getting back into the pool.”

“Our really awesome team at (the High Performance Centre – Victoria) developed a plan and a workout schedule to keep us busy. We do dryland every morning, and then I go on hikes and runs when I can.”

Hedlin has been staying in shape by kayaking, biking and running, while making sure he’s practicing social distancing.

“I was on my kayak a few days ago and I saw a humpback whale and I’ve never seen a whale before,” Hedlin said excitedly.

Although, he’s still close to the water, he says he definitely misses open water swimming.

“Just because on top of everything I just love that sport, it’s just so much fun,” said Hedlin.

MacNeil decided to head back home to London when the pool in Michigan, where she attends university, closed.

“I’ve enjoyed being home,” said MacNeil. “I don’t get home as much as I like to especially in April, so that was nice.”

MacNeil’s spending this time focusing on finishing up her semester of school online and doing some home workouts. Her parents even opened up their backyard pool so she could get some swimming in by herself despite the chilly weather.

“I started swimming because of that pool, so it’s nice to come full circle,” said MacNeil.

MacNeil said she hopes to head back to school in Michigan when the pandemic protocols allow. Her focus will be on getting some long-course training in before the NCAA season starts back up, and she’ll continue to train for a new Olympic year.

“It’s another year to get better,” said MacNeil. “I’m definitely going to try and make the best of it.”