New Brunswick

Girl who idolizes Olympian Marianne Limpert pleads for UNB pool to stay open

Olympic silver medallist Marianne Limpert and nine-year-old Sara McNabb have a lot in common.

'The pool means a lot to me and we really have nowhere to swim if it closes,' says 9-year-old Fredericton girl

When Sara McNabb found out about the closure of the Sir Max Aitken Pool last week, she burst into tears. (Photo: Chris Ramsey)

Olympic silver medallist Marianne Limpert and nine-year-old Sara McNabb have a lot in common.

They started swimming with FAST —  the Fredericton Aquanauts Swim Team — around the same age, with dreams of representing Canada at the Olympics.

They also share a love for the University of New Brunswick's Sir Max Aitken Pool, which is scheduled to close in September.

"It's basically my home now, I swim there a lot," said Sara, who just joined FAST last fall and is already making impressive times.

"The pool means a lot to me, and we really have nowhere to swim if it closes."

The young athlete has competed in swim meets across the province and recently qualified for the Marianne Limpert Team Championship, which will be held in Edmundston at the end of April.

Trying to explain to a nine-year-old, her swimming could possibly be over as of September is not the proudest dad moment.-Scott  McNabb , Fredericton resident 

"I feel I've grown a lot since I've started FAST," said Sara, who trains at the university pool four times a week.

"It's like a second family basically."

Last week, the City of Fredericton rejected UNB's offer to keep the pool open another year while a solution to the city's lack of competitive swimming spaces was found.

The proposal was made about a month ago and included having the city pay 60 per cent of the costs. Mayor Mike O'Brien said the city doesn't want to pay any costs of maintaining something it doesn't own.

O'Brien said he understood the swimming community is interested in the long-term outlook for aquatics in Fredericton, but the city is focused on a new centre for the performing arts.

Sara, who is 9, started swimming with the Fredericton Aquanauts Swim Team last fall. (Photo: Chris Ramsey)

Sara got word of the city's lack of interest in her sport from her father, Scott McNabb, while the two waited in the car to pick up her sister from school.

She instantly burst into tears.

"My heart sank and I couldn't be happy," she said.

Meanwhile, her father described the pool closing as "quite daunting" for the community.

"Trying to explain to a nine-year-old her swimming could possibly be over as of September is not the proudest dad moment," McNabb said.

"Seeing a crushed little nine-year-old is hard to take."

Despite the desperate need for a pool in the city, McNabb said he's confident the FAST program will continue.

Marianne Limpert, Sara's Olympic medallist hero, is concerned about how the loss of UNB’s Sir Max Aitken Pool will affect training opportunities for up-and-coming athletes. (CBC)

"What will it look like come September of 2018? … We're not sure," he said. "What Sara's plans are, we don't know ... I know she wants to continue her swim dream."

Limpert, who is one of the very few New Brunswick athletes to bring home a medal from the Olympics, has also been quite vocal about the pool's closure, expressing disappointment the pool couldn't be saved even for a year. 

"This was my home as I trained for the Atlanta Olympics, and it has been home to the hopes and dreams of thousands of young aspiring Olympians over the years, especially many young girls whose choices for athletic excellence are much more limited," Limpert wrote in a statement sent to CBC News last week.

A great gift in a dark hour

Although last week's announcement was a blow to Sara and the swim community, the saga took at least one happy turn. 

A family friend was able to schedule a surprise meet-and-greet between Limpert and Sara's Grade 4 class at Liverpool Street Elementary School. Limpert's visit came a day after the city quashed extending the UNB pool's life.  

And it couldn't have come at a better time.

Limpert surpised Sara and her Grade 4 class at Liverpool Street Elementary School, where she signed autographs and talked about her career as a swimmer. (Denise McNabb)

"She came into my class and made my day," Sara said.

The Olympic athlete signed autographs on shirts, sports bags and pieces of loose-leaf paper. She also answered questions about her swimming career, including what goes through her mind during a race.

Sara was working on a class project on why Limpert is her favourite Olympic athlete.

"I just sat there, I didn't know what was going on, and I started crying."

Sara McNabb has been working on a class project about Limpert, whose footsteps she'd like to follow. (Photo: Scott McNabb)

Eventually, she was able to get out a simple "Hi" to her hero and received a few signatures of her own.

"She made my year," Sara said.

Sara doesn't know what's going to happen with her sport in the Fredericton area, but she is bound and determined to swim her way to the top.

"It would be so cool to go to the Olympics," she said. "I think it would be really cool to represent Canada."