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Routliffe set to complete remarkable comeback at Madeira 2022

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Among the character traits that define Tess Routliffe are her fierce determination and wicked sense of humour.

The Canadian Para swimming team standout has needed every bit of both over the past year while overcoming a devastating injury that left her with a broken back, and eventually a broken dream.

The setback cost the Rio 2016 silver medallist her second Paralympic Games appearance last summer.

Thankfully, however, it didn’t put a premature end to her decorated career, and after a remarkable recovery, she will be one of 32 Canadians competing at the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships from June 12-18 in Madeira, Portugal.

“I was resting after a set of chin ups, just taking my break, and next thing I know I’m on the ground, kind of.”

That’s how Routliffe recalls her accident from June of 2021, only two months before the start of the Tokyo Games.

She was at the gym in Montreal training for a World Para Swimming World Series event, when a bar with heavy weights fell on her.

“What’s ironic is, the day before, I was sitting with a teammate, just talking about how I was ready to race. I just needed to have a lane and a real pool, with a real clock and real people swimming next to me,” says the 23-year-old from Caledon, Ont., who joined coach Mike Thompson at the High Performance Centre – Quebec six years ago. “Because all we had done for over a year was train, due to COVID.

“The day I broke my back was the day of my flight to get to Berlin and finally compete.

“The other ironic thing is, people say I have a bit of an obsession with the gym. My happy place is in the gym. That gym session was optional because we were flying that day. But I was like ‘Of course I’m going to go’. Optional is not a thing for me when it comes to the gym.”

The decision to officially withdraw from the Tokyo-bound Canadian squad, which came a few weeks later, was heartbreaking.

“I was ready for Tokyo,” says Routliffe, a three-time medallist at the London 2019 world championships. “When I started my career, Rio was going to be my first Games, test out the waters, you know, but from the start Tokyo was going to be my peak, it was going to be my Paralympic Games.

“We just had a very good year of training, because that’s all we could do, and life was lining up with my goal. And then it didn’t.”

Her mentor was just as devastated.

“It was a really tough decision, a very emotional decision,” says Thompson. “She tried to get back in the water but it was very painful. Her strokes didn’t look right, didn’t feel right, the timing was off. We knew it just wasn’t possible for her to have a successful Games at that point.”

By the time the Games got underway last August, Routliffe had accepted her fate but she still went through a wide range of emotions during the 10-day swimming competition.

“I think I had prepared myself for it to feel worse watching, and it ended up not feeling that bad. A lot of my closest friends are on the team. The goals for them didn’t change and I still wanted to support them, so it was honestly quite easy to watch them.

“The hardest races to watch were my own, the ones that I was supposed to be in. I kind of put those ones on in the background. I couldn’t watch too closely because those ones hurt.”

Post-Tokyo, Routliffe had one thing on her mind: Madeira 2022.

“As soon as I got back in the water after Tokyo, I was slowly integrating everything and I was thinking about Worlds. The only way I’m going to recover from Tokyo, emotionally, is if I know I can get back the feelings that I love, like racing.

“But honestly, I didn’t know I could get back to my level until basically Trials in Victoria.”

The S7 athlete got the answer she was looking for at the Bell Canadian Swimming Trials in April, where she qualified for the upcoming world championships in the 100-m breaststroke, 50 butterfly and 200 individual medley.

“Trials were very emotional for me because five months ago I was thinking, what’s realistic? Being five or six seconds away from your best until you get your screws removed? That might be the best we can do,” says Thompson.

“Watching her 100 breast on the first day of Trials, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. At night, she was a second and a half off the best she’s ever been in London in 2019. That was really emotional for me because not only was she back to where she should be, or close to where she should be, but we’ve travelled this long path with a lot of unexpected twists and turns and here we are, we did what we said we were going to do, we did it the way we wanted to do it. It took a lot of experts, it took a lot of people, it took a lot of medical help, but we got her back to where she should be.”

When asked how proud he is of his protégée’s comeback on a scale of 1 to 10, Thompson didn’t hesitate.

“45! I never thought for an instant she wouldn’t come back.

“Tess is a very determined human being. She’s got it. She’s a true competitor. She wanted to prove that she could come back from this and that she could be better than ever before, and be able to say ‘I can still beat you, because I’m good.’ That’s the swagger that she has.”

One of the things Routliffe looks forward to the most in Portugal is the feeling of once again being a full-fledged member of Team Canada.

“I think that will hit me at Worlds. Just being in that atmosphere, being with the people, racing again, racing with Aurélie (Rivard), which we didn’t get to do in Tokyo. Trials was more ‘It’s good to be back.’ ”

As for the Paralympic Games, could Routliffe be tempted to extend her competitive career past Paris 2024 to make up for lost time?

“LA 2028 is not not a thought,” she says with a laugh. “It’s definitely on the mind. It’s definitely a bigger thought. It kind of went from ‘I really don’t see myself hanging around until LA’ to ‘I can definitely see myself.’ But nothing is for sure. You never know what life’s going to throw at you, right?”