By Jim Morris
The results were rewarding but finding the mental confidence again was the big win for many of the Canadians participating in the International Swimming League competition that wrapped up over the weekend in Budapest, Hungary.
In its inaugural season last year, the ISL held a series of meets in citites around the world. This year the season was compacted into one event, much like the NHL or NBA playoffs.
Canadian swimmers broke eight national short-course records over the five weeks of swimming in the Budapest bubble. But for the Swimming Canada athletes who had their training interrupted this winter due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, simply racing again made the trip a success.
Sydney Pickrem broke the 400-metre individual medley record twice and added a new national 200-m IM mark over the weekend. She, like many others who missed several months of training, said she had started to question why she was swimming.
“A lot of people kind of lost the motivation and (thought) ‘What are we even swimming for?’ ” said Pickrem, a recent graduate of Texas A&M University who competes for the London Roar, which finished third in the ISL. “I was definitely in that boat.
“Going there . . . I would have said I was terrified of doing a 400 IM off the block. And then I’ve been able to go PBs and get a Canadian record. Just doing well and being fast, and just really being excited about racing mentally, I think was the biggest success of anything, more than physical events.”
Pickrem, racing for the first time since February, swam a Canadian record time of four minutes, 25.90 seconds on Nov. 10, then sliced 2.22 seconds off that mark five days later for a mark of 4:23.68. She added a swim of 2:04.00 in the 200 IM during the weekend’s final match to lower her previous record by 0.34 seconds.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” said the 23-year-old. “I’ve just been getting more comfortable with racing as it’s gone on. It’s shown in my swimming and it’s really given me a lot more confidence.
“I’m happy to get Canadian records. I don’t find my PBs are where I want them to be so I’m looking for improvement.”
Finlay Knox, who resumed full training in late June after being out of the pool for over three months, set national records of 1:53.67 in the 200 IM and 52.36 in the 100 IM.
“I think it was phenomenal,” said the Okotoks, Alta., native, who trains at the High Performance Centre – Ontario in Toronto with coach Ben Titley. “I was very pleased. I knew after a couple weeks of training that I was swimming very fast and I was feeling really good in the water. So, I wasn’t entirely surprised, but I was very pleased with the end result.”
Knox admitted he dealt with some early butterflies.
“Going into my first race I wasn’t entirely confident,” said the 19-year-old member of the expansion Toronto Titans, who advanced to semifinals. “Going into it was no racing for eight months, then having to set up against the fastest in the world, that was a little nerve wrecking.
“But after a couple of races it come back to me right away.”
Cole Pratt had a rough start to the meet. Because of a delay in some test results, Pratt and his coach Dave Johnson from the Cascade Swim Club in Calgary had to spend five extra days quarantined in their hotel rooms after arriving in Budapest.
That delay resulted in him having just one day of training before his first race.
“It was a bit of a mess,” said Pratt, another Toronto Titan, who rebounded to set a Canadian record of 50.40 seconds in the 100-m backstroke. “Getting through the first race and seeing that it wasn’t too bad, sort of lifted my spirts a bit and helped me get the whole way through.”
Markus Thormeyer, a two-time Swimming Canada Male Swimmer of the Year, set the 200-m backstroke record twice swimming for the expansion Tokyo Frog Kings, who also made semifinals. Thormeyer, who trains with Brad Dingey and Tom Johnson at the High Performance Centre – Vancouver, first swam 1:50.30 on Oct. 30, then shaved .03 off that time Nov. 14.
Brent Hayden, a 100-metre bronze medallist at the London 2012 Olympics who is attempting a comeback, didn’t set any records but regained some racing confidence. The 37-year-old swam mostly relays for the Titans but did compete in an individual 50-m freestyle and his first 100-m freestyle in almost nine years.
“I helped me find that racing gear again,” said Hayden, who also trains at the HPC–Vancouver. “There are things in racing that you can’t train for. The mental aspect of getting up on the block and getting your mind into that competitive mode.
“For me, it was becoming fearless again, especially at this age. I have to admit that I did have a little bit of fear due to not knowing how my body was going to respond. But, after getting off the blocks a few times I was able to shake that fear off and kind of find that competitive edge that I used to have. So that was a huge benefit.”
Knox said the experience will help him as he prepares for the Olympic & Paralympic Swimming Trials in April, where he hopes to earn a spot on the Tokyo Olympic team.
“I’ve got to figure out where I’m at in my training, identify my strengths, identify my big weaknesses, see where I’m really lagging behind,” he said. “For me, racing was the fun part of swimming. So just having fun again was great.”