The work of raising a young swimmer rolls in like tidal waves: the endless hours of training, the travel, the drives to the pool in the darkness before dawn.
For Simon Meier and other up-and-coming Manitoban swimmers like him, all that was pushing toward the Canadian Age Group Nationals.
The meet flooded into the Pan Am Pool this week, as almost 900 teen swimmers arrived to compete their freestyles, their backstrokes, their surging butterflies. They come from nine provinces and the Yukon, and from as far afield as Hong Kong and England. National coaches are watching. It can be a key moment in a rising career. But early in the meet, which runs through the weekend, Meier's back started hurting. Just a tweak, but enough to scratch him from his second event, the 100m breaststroke, on Thursday.
'When I'm not at the pool, I try and still be like a normal teenager. It's tough. I'm not always in the city when things are going on with my friends. But I love the sport so much, it's definitely worth it'
"Last meet of the year, and I was feeling really good coming into this," said Meier, 16, hanging by the edge of the pool where his teammates were set to compete. "To have something like that is kind of unfortunate, but you've got to try and stay positive."
He'll have another chance to race in the championships this morning -- and it's in his top event, the 200m breaststroke. Meier shaved five seconds off his time in that event this season, as he trained under Manta Swim Club head coach Tom Hainey. Now, the St. Paul's High School student is down to 2:18 in the short-course event -- fast enough to make him one of the most promising up-and-comers in the province.
In fact, Meier is one of three Manitobans tapped to continue competing at Pan Am next week, when the country's best face off in the East vs. West Dual Meet. It will be a whirlwind of training, and more races. It is exactly the sort of opportunity Meier dedicated so much of his teen years to prepare for. He was just a tyke when he started swimming, following his two older siblings into the pool.
His older sister, Kennedy, is on a swimming scholarship at the University of Connecticut. Meier hopes he might get a similar chance, too, so all these years will carry him somewhere.
"When I'm not at the pool, I try and still be like a normal teenager," he said. "It's tough. I'm not always in the city when things are going on with my friends. But I love the sport so much, it's definitely worth it."
Worth it, too, is a chance to carry forward Manitoba's swimming tradition, one that's long and cyclical throughout seasons. There are about 1,000 competitive swimmers in Manitoba, training with various clubs including Manta, the Manitoba Marlins, the St. James Seals and the University of Manitoba Bisons' youth club. "In the big picture of things, Manitoba does quite well, per capita," Seals head coach Ian Grunewald said.
For more than 20 years, Grunewald has watched the province's swim scene ebb and flow, watched young talents come and go. He points to this latest crop at the Age Group Nationals, swimmers such as Meier and Bison youth athletes Kelsey Wog and Mackenzie Glover, as proof of how the wheel keeps spinning.
Now, the question is how to help raise them higher. "We need to figure out how to take Manitoba to the next level, and sort of looking at what's our goal in the 2017 Canada Games," Grunewald said. "We're not going to beat the three best provinces, but we should be setting a goal of, what does it take to put a Manitoban in every final, and building a program to that."
There's a lot of aspects to that, Grunewald thinks. He sees knitting closer co-operation between clubs as a key. There's a lot of that interplay now, he noted, especially when it comes to things such as coaches working together to assemble next year's Western Canada Summer Games team. There are other pieces to the puzzle -- and like most things in this world, he wryly noted, it comes down to money.
Pool time comes at a premium and costs for rental and lifeguards rise regularly. Meanwhile, the city's showcase Pan Am Pool is showing its 45-year-old age. "No doubt about that," Grunewald said. "I think it's being held together by duct tape. What's the vision of the next step for this place? This pool really needs some work, if it's going to keep being a premier pool in the country."
Then there's a matter of finding ways to create more opportunity for CIS swimmers, so that fewer local talents have to pack their bags for the United States. Canadians swimming out of the CIS tend to do better in international competition than those who head south -- in the NCAA, there's little impetus to encourage Canadian athletes to rest and prepare for national meets. So working on a framework that would keep more college-aged athletes in Canada could be a plus.
Programs like the Bisons' could be part of that puzzle. In 2008, the university fully revamped its swim program to give youth and junior athletes a chance to train under Bisons varsity coaches Vlastik Cerny and Craig McCormick, and alongside university athletes. "They kind of treat me like their little sister," said Glover, 16, who captured a pair of bronzes in the first two days of this national meet.
"It's good, because it's kind of guiding us to the university program. I'd like to stay in Canada, because the majority of the Canadian Olympians go to university in Canada, so obviously we're doing something right."