"Where are the swimmers?" was the recurring query on day one. The stands, usually filled with an assortment of athletes, parents and devoted fans, had only enough space to house proud parents. Each team was allotted a finite number of mezzanine passes so that some swimmers could watch their teammates race "live." It all took some getting used to, so on day one, everyone seemed a bit cautious. Times today weren't great, although most finals were a tight race to the finish.
One exception was the women's 200 fly, won by home-province favorite Sara Alroubaie of Winnipeg, in a time of 2:16.80, ahead of Ontario's Judy Koonstra who faded in the last 10 metres and was second with 2:18.10.Sean Sepulis (ON) bettered the mens 100 backstroke record with a time of 57.47. The previous record of 57.76 was held by Mark Versfeld (AB) and set in 1993.
In the past, physically disabled swimmers haven't had the opportunity to compete alongside their able-bodied peers. This is changing, however, with the emergence of a "sport-first" philosophy that considers a person's disability as secondary to athletic ability. Six provinces were represented in Brandon by young swimmers with a disability (SWAD), and several left with Canadian records. Many such swimmers are fully integrated into able-bodied clubs, where they can benefit from larger training groups and more competition.
Swimming is very important to Sara Alroubaie. It may be vital, in fact. Eighteen months ago, Alroubaie was struck by viral meningitis and nearly died. But at Canada Games, she was struck by something else: gold medals.
"(The virus) came on really quick," she said. "The doctors said if I hadn't have been swimming and been strong, I probably wouldn't have made it."
When she was in the hospital, Alroubaie was determined to get back in the pool. This fighting spirit may have been the impetus behind her quick recovery. It certainly helped her at her first Canada Games, where the Winnipeg native won three gold medals, in the 100 and 200 fly and the 200 I.M. and one silver, in the 400 I.M.
"I think (the illness) made me stronger because I had to start all over from scratch," she said. "My first practise back I did something like five 200s and that's it."
Alroubaie believes that focussing on her stroke technique helped her win Canada Games gold.
"In the back of my mind I knew that I could do well," said the 16-year-old of her first win in the 200 fly. "I just really wanted to work on my technique and basically work on trying to build the race."
Alroubaie was undoubtedly the star of Team Manitoba in week one. But this is something the modest swimmer would have balked at had someone predicted it prior to the meet.
"Definitely, I'd say that they were crazy," she said earnestly. "With each medal I was more and more surprised. I probably would have laughed."
Who's ever heard of a national record holder having only one year of competitive swimming experience? Meet Stephanie Dixon.
She's only been a swimmer since September of 1996, but Dixon is already one of Canada's best swimmers with a disability. "I had been wanting to swim for a while but I never really got around to it," she said of her late start. "Finally, I talked to my mom about it and we went and checked it out. I enjoy it a lot."
On day one, the 13-year-old Ontario swimmer won her best event, the 100 backstroke, with a time of 1:21.72, giving her both a Canadian record and 'A' carding. (She was slightly faster in the morning with 1:21.69.) She left Brandon with one gold, one silver, and three bronze medals.
"It feels great," said Dixon of her backstroke win. "I planned on 'B' carding. When I saw my time I was just so excited."
Dixon, who was born with one leg, has a disability level of S9 in backstroke events. (The functional classification has a scale of one to 10, with one referring to the least functional ability and 10 referring to the most.)
The Brandon Games were her first all-sport experience, and an excited Dixon could barely contain her enthusiasm."(The Games) are awesome!" she beamed. "With the TVs and cameras everywhere, it's just been the best." And Dixon is one athlete who has no problem with the lack of deck space for the swimmers.
"I don't mind it," she said. "I would mind a bunch of people on deck after I'm swimming because I wouldn't be able to move."