Hilary Caldwell figured it had been about two years – at least – since she’d last dipped her toes into the water at the South Surrey Indoor Pool.
But considering her schedule of late, her absence can be excused.
The 22-year-old swimmer now lives and trains in Victoria, and she’s been awful busy in the water the last, oh, 18 months or so.
For starters, she represented Canada at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, competing in the women’s backstroke, and since then, she’s been on a whirlwind tour of Europe, competing on the World Cup circuit. Back in August, she won a bronze medal in the 200-m backstroke at the FINA World Championships, and setting a new Canadian record in the bargain.
So, yeah, she’s been a little bit pre-occupied.
“It’s been a busy few months – few years, I guess,” she laughed, while standing in the lobby of White Rock’s Centennial Arena late last month, where she was set to speak to young swimmer from her Pacific Sea Wolves Swim Club. After speaking to the group, they headed to South Surrey Pool for a practice session in which Caldwell helped coach.
“I’m pretty spoiled, being in Victoria, and getting to swim at the Commonwealth Pool, because it’s so nice. But coming back here to the little pool where I started, it’s pretty fun. I mean, I swam here for 12 years and PSW did so much for me,” said Caldwell, who is still affiliated with PSW and represents the club at Canadian meets.
“I love coming back. I get to see my parents – they live right down the road – and some friends and other people. It’s so nice to be home, even if it’s just for a day.”
Her homecoming was indeed brief. She had arrived from Victoria just hours before speaking to PSW swimmers that Friday afternoon, and the following day headed to Whistler for the Swim BC awards. It was a worthwhile trip up the Sea-to-Sky, too – Caldwell was named Swim BC’s female swimmer of the year, while Brad Dingey, the longtime head coach of the Sea Wolves, was named coach of the year for 15- to 18-year-old swimmers.
Whether in her hometown or abroad, Caldwell, who is studying French and history at the University of Victoria, said she always enjoys speaking to young, up-and-coming swimmers.
“It’s fun to talk to the kids,” she said. “I remember as a young swimmer, how cool it was when Canadian Olympians would come and talk to us, so it’s nice to be able to do that myself now.”
And the message she delivers, which emphasizes hard work and persistence, is far more than just platitudes and cliche – it’s the story of her path from South Surrey to the Olympic stage.
“The message I give to them is that, not that long ago, I was exactly where you are now. I was never a standout 12-year-old superstar, or even a star at 14 or 16,” she explained.
“I just worked hard every day and kept going, finding little bits of motivation where you can. But I was exactly where they were.”
As proof, Caldwell points to her first few swim practices in Victoria, where she was in the water alongside seasoned veterans and swimmers with all manner of international experience.
“I was training with Olympians and Canadian record-holders, so that was eye-opening to me. It was a little intimidating at first, but then I realized, ‘Hey, I’m doing every day what you’re doing every day, so we’re not that different, really,’” said Caldwell, who had the Olympic rings tattooed on her left arm.
“You realize you fit in, and aren’t the underdog in the group anymore. That’s when you start to figure it out.”
Caldwell is currently back in Victoria, and though continuing to train, is on a competitive break until the swim season picks back up. She is already eyeing the next slate of competitions, including the next Olympic Games, which aren’t until 2016 in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
“I’m on a bit of a breather for now – but just a little bit,” she said. “The Olympics were so amazing, such a cool experience. I just wish I swam better, but I’ll know better for next time.”