Canada's Kelly Stefanyshyn certainly stood out in the crowd in Beijing. As the only non-Chinese winner of a women's event on the first night of the FINA World Cup, she held off Germany's Cathleen Rund to finish first in the 200 backstroke in 2:10.01. With a previous best of 2:10.12 from last December, the time was impressive (splits: 31.12, 1:04.20, 1:36.89, 2:10.01), even if just shy of the Canadian record of 2:09.99 set by Julie Howard in 1995.
"It was a good in-season race," she said afterward in Beijing. "I was unshaved and it was also my personal best time. I'm really happy with it. I was working on front-end speed. But there is a lot of room to improve. I will need to get out faster and come home stronger the next time."
On her first trip to Asia, there were many things to experience. For one thing, the huge travel demands. But Kelly took it all in stride. While jet lag can be a problem for some athletes when there is little time for adjustment, she had the right attitude. "I'm trying to get lots of sleep and adjust to the local time and meals right away and not think about what the time might be at home," she said matter-of-factly. "I think I adjusted pretty quickly."
As for the general conditions in China, Kelly had few complaints. "The pool is pretty nice," she said. "The fact that people were smoking inside the pool was not the greatest. But the hotel accommodation is great. All in all, pretty good."
And finally, there was the de rigueur visit to the Great Wall of China. "That was really neat," she said, "but there were a lot of stairs to climb!"
In Hong Kong she knew what she could do. This time the 16-year-old Winnipeg native nailed the Canadian record in the 200 backstroke with a gutsy 2:09.75. She went on to sweep all three backstroke races, taking the 50 in 28.97, and the 100 in a blistering 1:00.75.
|Kelly Stefanyshyn, CAN|
|BIRTHDATE||6 JUL 1982|
|HEIGHT||175 cm (5' 10")|
|WEIGHT||61 kg (134 lbs.)|
|REPRESENTS||Canadian Kodiac SC|
|1998 Commonwealth Games 2nd 100 back 1:02.81, 5th 200 back 2:14.82, 2nd 4x100 Medley|
|98 Nationals 1st 100 back 1:02.57, 1st 200 back 2:14.17|
|97 Pan Pacs 11th 100 back 1:04.28, 6th 200 back 2:15.60|
|97 Nationals 2nd 100 back 1:03.85, 2nd 200 back 2:17.53|
After two competitions, Kelly had better grounds for comparison. "There is a big difference. The conditions here in Hong Kong are a lot better," she observed. "The air is a lot cleaner and it's easier to breathe, but you have deal with each situation as you find it and make the best of it."
Indeed the format of the World Cup competitions —long travel, a day rest, competition, travel again, etc.—is a challenge. But one that Kelly enjoyed. She even surprised herself by swimming so well unshaved and with so little rest.
"You learn about mental toughness," she said. "You just have to get up and race over and over again. The travel, the jet lag, and having to compete just make you tougher. You learn how to deal with it and it makes you stronger for the bigger meets." It was also a feat to beat German rival Cathleen Rund—a European champion and Olympic bronze medallist-in-season, and Kelly felt it set her up for a sensational season.
"Yes, she's (a pretty big fish in our sport). She comes on really strong on the end of her races. I really have to watch out for that, especially in the last 50. I have to make sure I have enough energy left to hold her off," Kelly commented.
It seems sadly ironic that now, in her most successful season so far, Kelly is facing a cruel predicament with her home club, the Canadian Kodiaks. The Winnipeg club can't afford to pay head coach Kevin Thorburn's salary, so he has decided to step down while the club carries on as an age group team. Kelly has therefore been forced to find an alternative in order to reach her potential.
"I never thought I'd have to leave, but right now it's the only solution," she said. "There is no (other) place in Manitoba that I would swim. There is not much of a choice. It's a sad situation. I wish we had a team and I could stay with Kevin. Even if it doesn't work out where I go, I can bounce back to Kevin once he lands on his feet."
Kelly tried training in Calgary, Victoria, and Vancouver over the Christmas break, and has decided to go to Vancouver at the end of January. "It's all kind of a try-out until the summer to see if I like it," she explained. "I'm not making a long-term commitment anywhere that I'll be there for the next six years. It's not like that."
Having competed in four of the first five World Cups, Kelly says "it seems realistic to go to Europe." She competed in Europe last year and liked what she got out of it. And given her current situation, it might be the perfect opportunity for on-the-road training.
Kelly agreed that the World Cup is a lot more than what it appears to be on the surface. "It looks like an easy meet, but it is hard when you have to continually get "up" for the next race, pack up your things, and travel to the next stop. It's a great opportunity to learn from your mistakes at one meet and you don't have to wait a couple of months to do better. You can try to improve in the next race. You can it fix it right away."
She maintains that she is a tougher athlete than she was. "For sure. You've got all these races to do. It's all over so quickly. It's all back-to-back. You get really tired by the end of it, but you just have to stay tough."
While momentum is a big factor in maintaining performance, Kelly found that another thing that helped was the opportunity to learn about her competition. "You are racing mostly the same people at each meet and you get to figure out their race strategies. You really learn how to race here."
"I'm learning to cope with different circumstances, like if the beds aren't the same or the food is not right," she went on. "But everyone is dealing with the same situation so it's not like I'm the only one."
But she does have one special item that travels with her. "I bring my own pillow," she smiled. "Maybe that's my real secret. I took it to training camp during Christmas and I thought of the 12-hour plane trip and I thought it would be nice."