This profile was written by Andrea herself.
I got my first “real” bathing suit for my 50th birthday. I’d started swimming Masters with a local Ottawa club a couple of years before and my two competitive swimming daughters were mortified that I wore a no name Zeller’s faded one piece that I’d probably owned for 15 years. My birthday gift from my daughters was my first Speedo. That particular suit has been retired for a while now—not because it’s threadbare or anything. Just because I’m a swimmer now. And swimmers love new suits now and again.
I should know. I’d been buying them for the aforementioned daughters for many years and my younger daughter is still at it—swimming varsity in her third year at Dalhousie University.
I actually owe my new-found love of swimming as a participant to them. I spent so many hours at the pool over the years, driving to the pool, watching practices and officiating at swim meets, that I figured it was time to actually learn to be a swimmer. And it wouldn’t hurt, I realized, to understand the strokes more completely when I was working meets as a stroke and turn official.
I still remember feeling confident in my lake swimming abilities (having spent all my summers at a cottage) and assuming it wouldn’t take much to get me up to speed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I knew nothing about how to do any of the strokes and so it was a steep learning curve. My daughters joined me in the early days at one session. We were learning flip turns. I almost drowned. They were laughing so hard they almost drowned too.
But I persisted. And I prevailed. I’m not fast. I probably never will be. But my strokes look good. And my butterfly has long since graduated from butter-struggle to something my varsity swimmer grudgingly admits looks good. Of course I can’t sustain it for more than 25m but hey—I’ve come a long way!
In the late spring of 2014, I was changing to go to swim practice when my hand brushed the side of my breast and I noticed a lump. It would turn out to be breast cancer. I had surgery, chemo and radiation. I stopped Masters, but the odd time when I felt up to it during treatment, I would do a short lane swim. I remember feeling self-conscious about my bald head and would typically use a change stall to go from hat to swim cap. But by the following spring, I began to embrace my new peach fuzz and realized that no one stared, or even noticed. And this helped empower me and make me feel more confident. The swimming also made my whole body stretch and move in a way that helped me heal physically and mentally.
By the fall of 2015, I was ready to start real swimming again. I joined a new club, B-Train Swimming, and immediately fell in love with my 1996 Olympian swim coach Andrea Schwartz Smith, and my many new lane mates. We swim two afternoons a week and we’re supposed to be a 55 and over group. But we’re actually a mix of old and young. Unlike some of the more intense morning swim groups, we actually take time to chat and laugh at the wall and some of us even sit out the odd 50m. Coach Andrea gets that we aren’t always compliant. And she’s OK with that—because often she is the one that gets us talking to begin with.
Last year I was bugging my lane-mates to donate to a run I was doing to raise money for the Breast Health Centre at the Ottawa Hospital. One of my new buddies decided to up the ante. Along with a donation, he dreamed up a whole new fundraiser: a swim meet that would raise money for the Breast Health Centre. We are just getting this event off the ground now. But the date is set for Saturday, April 7th at Brewer Pool in Ottawa. It will be B-Train’s first hosted Masters meet with a fundraising initiative attached. Seven of my lane mates have signed on as my co-organizers to make this inaugural event a success. It will be a Masters Swim Ontario sanctioned event so look for details early in the new year and plan to join us if Ottawa is a destination on April 7, 2018!
I’ve recently returned from a swim training camp called The Freestyle Experience run by former Olympian Katie Brambley. She, along with my coach Andrea, as well as 2012 Olympian Tera Van Beilen, were the swim coaching trio dream team that led a group of 18 Masters swimmers through a gruelling 9 days of double practice a day experience in the Barbados that coincided with the Barbados Open Water Festival. Within the first two days I wondered if I had temporarily gone insane for signing up for this last spring. My varsity daughter had warned me when I told her about it, “You know you’re going to have to swim, right?” I think she imagined I would go to Barbados and settle into a beach and pina colada routine. But I didn’t. I went faithfully with my 17 new best friends to the 19-lane outdoor pool that is the Olympics training centre of the Barbados. When I messaged my daughter that I was going to skip one of the practices due to exhaustion, she messaged me back, without an ounce of compassion. “OMG Mom, it’s a training camp. You’re SUPPOSED to be exhausted!” And I was. But it was a GOOD exhausted.
Andrea at The Freestyle Experience (in the middle, with the pink cap)
I only did two of the ocean open water swims, but it was an absolutely magical new experience. We set out from the hotel on foot one morning at 5 am to be in the ocean at dawn. I saw sea turtles, starfish, coral, multi-coloured fish—so much more interesting than the black line at the bottom of the pool. And the benefits of buoyancy in salt water were not lost on me either!
I’m still not keen on the idea of participating in meets (except on April 7th, of course!). It’s not so much about the speed or the competition for me. For me, swimming is about camaraderie. It’s about fitness. And it’s about doing something that challenges me and will continue to do so for many years to come.