The sun was shining brilliantly in the summer sky when we stepped off the airplane in our identical royal blue and white crinkled cotton uniforms. On the ground we were greeted by several volunteers whose eyes glittered with pride as they welcomed us to their home. And as we were ushered onto nearby buses whose engines revved in anticipation, my friends and I nudged each other and grinned: We had made it.
No, it wasn't the Olympic Games nor the World Championships. Rumours of some team's alleged steroid use weren't circulating the village. And no, the world wasn't watching the athletes as we won our races, tied our matches, or lost our competitions.
But Canada certainly was.
It was August 1989, and the Nova Scotia Canada Games team arrived in Saskatoon for the second week of athletic competition. At 14, I was a relative newcomer to the national scene, and to me, the swim meet was of colossal importance. I was planning to make my mark in Saskatoon, and catapult myself to the next level, where swimmers are ineligible for Canada Games.
This was also my first large-scale all-sport athletic event. Swimming is celebrated for its individuality, and I was finally able to live out my team-sport fantasies, since here it was, province versus province, not just me versus the girl in lane four.
Although the Games themselves were memorable and exciting (sort of in a roller coaster-like way), when I think back, I can best recall my races at the trials.
The entire 1988/89 swimming season was devoted to preparing for the Canada Games trials, held in Halifax in May. Our coach decided that he wanted this to be the "Most Important Meet of Our Lives," so, instead of commuting back and forth to the pool with our parents, we stayed in a hotel and rented limousines that escorted us to finals each night. The pressure was on, but we were confident.
I remember bouncing up to my father, who was officiating on the side-lines, after warm-ups the first night. I was convinced I knew how events would unfold. "I'm going to win the 100 back tonight, Daddy," I whispered. He was so nervous he couldn't bear to watch, thus neglecting his stroke-and-turn judge duties. My mother didn't even make it to the pool to witness the event from the stands, instead opting for a weekend of anxiously not eating and catching my races on the local cable station that was covering the trials.
After securing my spot on the Canada Games team, there was a definite let-down. I had devoted almost nine months to the task. Now what?
I was a relative newcomer to the national scene, and to me, the swim meet was of colossal importance. I was planning to make my mark in Saskatoon, and catapult myself to the next level.
The coaches did their best to prepare us for the long summer ahead. And I eventually returned to my feisty self and covered my bedroom walls with hand-drawn posters whose catchy positive-thinking phrases and dream goal times kept me focussed.
After a bustling summer of training camps, social events, bathing suit/team apparel sizing sessions and a great deal of anticipation, we arrived in Saskatoon, humming the Games' theme song ("Look out, look out, look out worldÉ") under our breath.
And let's just say that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
There was a lot to be excited about. So much free stuff was thrown at us that we began to take it for granted ("Not another long sleeve shirtÉ"). I became a pin-trading wizard, and even managed to snag one of the highly coveted NWT polar bear swimming pins. But best of all was the feeling that I was part of something bigger than just me, my team, or even my sport. All of the athletes shared a bond that outsiders really couldn't understand. Within the bubble that was the Games village, we were the centre of everyone's attention. How often does that happen?
The swimming, on the other hand, was not so great. I made finals but my times were far from my goals. The entire Nova Scotia team was disappointed with our performance. I think we failed to look beyond the challenge and exhilaration of qualifying for the Canada Games Team, when in fact not only the trials but the Games themselves should have been treated like a means to the next level.
For some, however, the Games were a send-off party of sorts. Bidding adieu to provincial allegiances, these swimmers, such as 1996 Olympic silver medallist Marianne Limpert, have since gone on to claim Canada as their "home town." And I'm certain the Canada Games set the stage for the impressive careers of many of these elite athletes.
Katharine Dunn will be covering the 1997 Canada Games for SWIMNEWS this August.