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Veteran Olympic and Paralympic swimmers decide time is right to retire

News –

By Jim Morris

It wasn’t always an easy decision but several Swimming Canada athletes have decided the time is right to step away from the sport.

Their reasons for retiring may vary, but all agree the years competing in the pool have helped prepare them for life outside of swimming.

Olympic athletes moving on include Emily Overholt, a bronze medallist in the 4×200-metre freestyle relay at the Rio 2016 Games, and Mack Darragh, the Canadian record holder in the 200-m butterfly. Morgan Bird, part of the bronze-medal winning 4×100-m freestyle relay at the Tokyo 2020 Games, and veteran Tammy Cunnington, are retiring from the Paralympic team.

Like all athletes, Overholt had to cope with the stress of the pandemic, plus she also dealt with surgery for a shin injury. At the Canadian Olympic Swimming Trials, Presented by Bell, she won the 200-m butterfly and was second in the 400-m freestyle but outside the times needed to earn her a spot on Canada’s Olympic team heading to Tokyo.

“I wouldn’t say (retiring) was a difficult decision,” said the 24-year-old from West Vancouver, B.C., who trained at the High Performance Centre – Vancouver under coach Tom Johnson.

“I think with everything going on last year I was kind of ready to be done. I knew that after the trials, or if I had made the Olympics, that would be it for me.”

The highlight of Overholt’s career was the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games, where she won gold in the 400-m free and silver in the 200-free. She also was part of bronze-medal winning 4×200-m freestyle relay, which she swam not long after her victory in the 400-m medley was wiped out because of an illegal turn.

“That’s probably one of my most fun meets. Racing with Team Canada, in Canada, with my whole family in the stands was really special,” she said

Darragh swam the butterfly leg of the men’s 4×100-m medley relay that finished 16th at the Rio Olympics. One of his best memories was winning bronze in the 200-m fly at the 2011 FINA World Youth Championships in Peru.

At this year’s Olympic trials, the 27-year-old won the 200-m fly but outside the qualifying time. He considered continuing training with the goal of qualifying for the Paris 2024 Games but decided it wasn’t a reasonable option.

“The dream was always to finish after an Olympic Games,” said Darragh, an Oakville, Ont., native who trained at the High Performance Centre – Ontario under coach Ben Titley.

“That (Paris) being that far away, I’d be in my 30s. It’s just harder and harder depending on how the pandemic goes.”

Bird, who was born with cerebral palsy, had considered retiring following the Rio Paralympics.

“I thought I would be doing myself a disservice because I didn’t have an exit strategy (and) I didn’t feel like I was done with the sport,” said the 28-year-old   Calgary native who trained at the HPC – Quebec with Mike Thompson

She was planning to retire following Tokyo so winning the relay bronze was a bonus.

“I never pictured being able to call myself a Paralympic medallist,” said Bird. “Coming out a bronze medallist with my teammates in a relay is like the cherry on top of everything.

“I’m a person that loves relays because you get to experience racing with your teammates. Just to experience being on the podium with three of my closest friends . . . you can’t ask for a better ending to a career than that.”

Cunnington, 45, set both Canadian and world records in her category. She swam three events in Tokyo but didn’t advance to a final.

“I don’t think it’s ever an easy decision,” said the Red Deer, Alta., resident who trained with coach Mandi Smith at the Red Deer Catalina Swim Club. “Even when you know it’s time, it’s still hard.”

The two-time Paralympian was six years old when she was struck by an airplane at a Ponoka, Alta., air show. The accident left her a paraplegic with the full use of her right arm, plus her core and shoulders. Prior to swimming, she played wheelchair basketball at a national level and competed in triathlon.

She credits competitive swimming with giving her a sense of confidence and accomplishment.

“I went from being injured and near death to (competing at) Rio and Tokyo,” she said.

“I worked really hard and all my dedication and motivation really paid off when I made those teams. That just gave me a boost to know that I could do hard things. That’s important to me.”

During her career Overholt won bronze medals at two world championships. She also dealt with injuries and depression.

“When I look back on my career, a lot of it’s not really about swimming. It’s mostly about the relationships, my coaches, my friends,” she said. “I’m still in touch with Tom and some other staff at the Vancouver centre.

“That’s really special and I think that’s kind of what most of my highlights are.”

Bird, who won a silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and two bronze at that years Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships, said swimming “instilled in me a determined mindset beyond what any job could have instilled in me.”

Darragh said swimming taught him to be goal oriented and persistent, skills he hopes to apply in his new career in marketing.

“You can’t really get too far in swimming without having a good work ethic and working hard all the time,” he said.

Cunnington plans to devote more time to working with the group Fast and Female, a group that shows girls the benefits of staying in sports. A past member of Swimming Canada’s athlete council, she wants to continue advocating for safe sports.

“Be part of the group that can improve the culture in elite sports,” she said.

Bird has a degree in child studies and is taking an on-line class for adapted physical activity.

“Swimming has been my life for 17 years and I don’t see it ever not being part of my life,” she said. “I want to stay involved with it as much as I can.”

Overholt said her experiences being part of national swim teams will help in her career as a social worker.

“I think now it’s over, I’m actually more proud of what I did than when I was swimming,” she said. “I was ready to be done and now that I am, I can appreciate it a little bit more.”

Also retiring is Samantha Ryan, who set a Canadian record in finishing fifth in the 100-m butterfly at the Rio Paralympics, and Sarah Girard, a bronze medallist at the 2018 Para Pan Pacs and 2015 Toronto Parapan Games.

The list of national team swimmers retiring over the past year also includes Alyson Ackman, Sarah Darcel, Richard Funk, Tyler Wall, Josiah Binnema, Will Pisani and Mackenzie Padington.