Toronto·Metro Morning

From swimming phenom to teacher: Olympian Annamay Pierse on her do-over

Annamay Pierse found herself unable to compete in the sport she'd spent a lifetime training for — so she started over.

Pierse had to start over when an illness took away her Olympic dreams — and she came out laughing

Annamay Pierse found herself unable to compete in the sport she'd spent a lifetime training for — so she started over, began a new career and started a family. (Kelly Middleton Photography)

It's rare to be able to pinpoint the moment in which your life changes forever.

But for Annamay Pierse, a Canadian swimmer and former world-record holder, there are a few to pick from.

It could be the moment she was bitten by a mosquito while competing at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India, contracting dengue fever.

It could be the moment in the 2012 Olympic trials in which she realized the illness had weakened her enough to end her career.

Have you had a 'Do-Over' moment? Leave us a message at 416-205-5807 or email us at metromorning@cbc.ca.

Or it could be the moment when — despondent over the loss of swimming — her husband turned to her in the car and suggested she think about teaching.

Pierse was a swim star known for her signature race — the 200 metre breaststroke, for which she set the world record in 2009.

Canada's Annamay Pierse was stunned by her results at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India, later discovering she had contacted dengue fever, which ultimately forced her retirement. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

But after she contracted dengue fever, she told CBC Radio's Metro Morning, getting in the pool "was never the same."

"My body wouldn't react to training," she said. "No matter what I tried to do, the mental side of it, the physical side of it, nothing, kind of, came back together again."

After throwing herself back into training, she eventually realized her swimming career was over.

'I didn't know who I was'

At the London 2012 Olympics, she watched from the sidelines as the 200 metre breaststroke race took off.

"I just started sobbing, full-body heaving sobs, and I couldn't stop," she said. "Because that was my race; that was what I had trained my entire life for. It was the race that I was the best in the world at at that time. To see that go on without me in it — it broke my heart." 

Pierse says that at that point, she was "broken," without a sense of self.

"I used to be Annamay Pierse, this outgoing swimmer who could stand up in front of a crowd and could talk to anybody and who was a strong woman. And all of a sudden, I didn't know who I was," she explained.  

It was in that period that she took a fateful car ride with her husband, Olympic paddler Mark Oldershaw. 
Pierse, now a teacher, says some of her older students are aware of her past as an athlete. "In a way, they can think, 'Oh, that’s pretty neat, my teacher’s done something cool,'" she said. (Submitted by Annamay Pierse)

"He looked at me and said, 'Why don't you become a teacher? You are your best self when you're around kids,'" she said, adding that her favourite part of being an athlete had been visiting schools.

Pierse is now an elementary school teacher, a mother of two, and a member of Highbrau, a Toronto-based comedy troupe. 

"I feel like I've had a lot of do-overs, I guess. The end of my swimming career was definitely not how I wanted it. There's still moments when I think, 'Oh, if I could only go back and do it again,;" she said. "But the other side of me — I have these two amazing little girls now. And a job that I love."


This week, in honour of the new year, Metro Morning is bringing you stories of 'Do-Overs' — moments in which people decide to make profound changes to their lives. Have you had a 'Do-Over' moment? Leave us a message at 416-205-5807 or email us at metromorning@cbc.ca.

With files from Metro Morning

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