It’s early Thursday morning as Aurélie Rivard walks to take her place on the starting blocks at Pan Am Pool.
She’s about to compete in a preliminary event at the Canadian Swim Championships for one of her favourite races, the 50-metre freestyle swim.
The buzzer sounds and Rivard dives in, reaching the other end of the pool in just 28.80 seconds — yet another first-place finish for the 23-year-old Paralympic swimmer.
"I’ve always felt so comfortable in the water, in the pool. The first thing I liked is that I wasn’t different. I was fast as the other kids, even faster — and I was actually quite good at it. That’s the first thing that made me stick to it," said Rivard.
Rivard was born with an impairment to her left hand, but that hasn’t stopped her from becoming one of the most decorated swimmers in Canadian history. At the Rio 2016 Paralympics, she swam away with three gold medals and one silver.
But Rivard’s path to success hasn’t been an easy one, mainly due to her biggest enemy — herself.
"As a younger kid I struggled a lot, put so much pressure on myself. I was very, very anxious. Everybody believed in me except myself; I’d say that was my No. 1 disability," she said.
"I’d tell young Paralympians to not listen to what people say if they don’t believe in you and just let it go. Trust yourself and put in the amount of work you need to achieve your goals. I would’ve avoided myself so much stress if I just believed in myself and what I was able to do as a 13, 14 year old."
The Quebec native began swimming lessons before the age of one. By the time she was 11, she found her way into competitive swimming.
“When I discovered the high-level sport and racing, I loved the challenge. I love to challenge myself, to set myself goals and to work really hard for it and achieve it." — Aurélie Rivard
"When I discovered the high-level sport and racing, I loved the challenge. I love to challenge myself, to set myself goals and to work really hard for it and achieve it. I think it’s the best feeling in the world when you know you worked really hard for something you wanted. I love the pool and I love the athlete life," she said.
Rivard is classified as an S10 swimmer. In all Paralympic events, athletes are classified by their level of disability to make it a fair and even race. Categories 1-10 are for physical disability, while 11 and 13 are for the visually impaired.
The S10 category includes people with minimal disability and is the last category before able-bodied swimmers. Most often, people in this category will have impairments such as a missing hand or fingers, a club foot, a leg missing below the knee or very mild cerebral palsy.
Swimming competitively as an abled-bodied person is challenging enough as is. Paralympic competitors have an added layer of things to think about when they hop into the pool.
"If a swimmer has a layer of dry skin on them, it’s going to make them slower. So missing a hand — my entire arm shorter than my right arm, and weaker, it makes a huge difference compared to somebody with two hands…. It’s kind of like if you were swimming with your hand in a fist, or putting a fin on one leg and not the other," said Rivard.
Not only is the 23-year old the fastest women’s Paraylmpic swimmer in recent years – she’s the fastest there’s ever been. Rivard set two world records during her 2018 season. One in the 50m freestyle, the other in the 400m freestyle.
"It’s unreal. It took me years to realize, ‘Oh, I’m the fastest in the world.’ There’s something surreal about it. My time just happens to be the world record. I’m not thinking about it, I’m not focusing on it," she said.
Rivard’s next big challenge will be the World Para Swimming Championships in London in September. It’s the last big competition before Tokyo 2020.
"My goal every year, every day is to just be myself. It’s to break my personal record, which just happens to be a world record. That’s my goal every year, to be faster than myself."