Sports | “The best feeling in the world”

McGill Swimmer wins three medals at 2012 Paralympics

Valérie Grand’Maison, a fourth-year McGill student of history and psychology, returned to Canada in September with one gold and two silver medals from the 2012 London Paralympic Games. In total, she has accumulated nine Paralympic medals and twelve world records in the S13 category for athletes who have a visual impairment. The Daily sat down for an interview with Grand’Maison and learned about her path to the Paralympics and a world record.

Grand’Maison’s swimming career did not get off to a good start: while learning how to swim she failed a beginner’s Red Cross swim class. With characteristic determination, she kept practicing and became increasingly committed to the sport. The gruelling two-hour morning and evening practices got Grand’Maison to love adrenaline as she continued to swim competitively throughout her high school years. At age 15, Grand’Maison’s vision started to deteriorate due to macular degeneration and she took a short hiatus from swimming to deal with her new circumstances. After six months, she took a suggestion from one of her coaches and sent her papers to the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) to qualify as an athlete with a disability.

When Grand’Maison returned to swimming she achieved a morale-boosting medal sweep at the Canadian Handicap Swimming Championships where she “Michael Phelps-ed” the competition. Her success in the pool led her to the Beijing Paralympic Games, where she captured six medals for Canada and was Canada’s most successful swimmer. A self-described “selfish athlete,” Grand’Maison shifted her focus away from a goal-oriented approach to enjoying all aspects of her sport. Her experiences at the Beijing Games got her thinking of swimming as a sport to be played and not just a race to be won. She rediscovered her love of training and set her goals on London.

During this time she developed a right shoulder injury, which again threatened to end her career. Attempting to push herself harder only led to further injury and after a few disappointing swimming competitions, Grand’Maison was forced to re-invent her training program. It took months of physiotherapy, different training methods, strength conditioning, and a new outlook to get back to her old level. Recovery is a process where you take “one step back, two steps forward,” says Grand’Maison, and the new training program was able to get her prepared for the 2012 Paralympic Games.

Swimming is a sport where hundredths of seconds matter and everything must go right in order to win. Things did not go right in London at the beginning, as she failed to defend her world record and gold medal in the 100-metre freestyle (front crawl). Grand’Maison was favoured to win the race, but says that she let her nerves get the best of her; her American rival, Kelley Becherer, slipped ahead and won the gold. Earlier that day, she won an unexpected silver in the 50-metre freestyle, but it did not ease the pain of losing the gold in the 100-metre free.  Knowing she wanted at least one gold medal, she audaciously told the press and her team that the next race was going to be hers.

The 200 IM, or individual medley, is a race where a competitor swims 50 metres in each swimming stroke (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle). This was the race she trained for the most and, though she started it with an easy pace, she finished it in a flurry. Grand’Maison set a Paralympic world record and beat her closest competitor by over two seconds, a huge amount for competitive swimming. She knew she could win the gold in the 200 IM, but didn’t know she would set a world record. The world record “surprised her” but it is one of the reasons that she enjoys training.

An ecstatic, crying, and dancing Grand’Maison finally stepped to the top of the podium to hear the anthem. She describes it as “the best feeling in the world” to have 17,000 spectators cheer you on to the finish and recalled how she took “mental snapshots” so she can remember it throughout her life.  Despite enduring an intense training schedule, she says that it is all worth it for those precious moments.

Grand’Maison is currently taking a well-deserved break from swimming and focusing on school. The next Paralympic Games are in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and will take even more effort as the calibre of Paralympic athletes keeps improving. As of now, it’s an open question if she will take to the pool and train for the next world stage or focus on pursuing medical school.

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