I was watching the Barcelona Games on TV at my uncle’s house in the summer of 1992 when I first witnessed swimming competition.
I remember the rest of my family having dinner and they wanted me to join them. But there was no way I was taking my eyes off that TV and going to that dining room. I wanted to see what would happen.
What happened was Canadian Mark Tewksbury won Olympic gold in the men’s 100-metre backstroke. I was eight years old and had already given up on being a hockey or baseball player. This was the first time I thought, “Maybe THIS could be it.”
That summer, my older sister Genevieve and I started swimming lessons once a week, nothing serious. Just for fun because mom wanted us to be safer around water. When I got started in the pool, I couldn’t kick quite as fast as the other swimmers, but for the first time, I had found a sport that made me feel like the other kids.
It was tough as a child to not be able to do what you dreamed of doing. I’d see my other friends with great abilities in skating or running, and felt I wasn’t like them. I was afraid they would make fun of me, and I didn’t yet have the confidence or strength I would develop later in life.
I was a big hockey fan. I wanted to play, but it had taken me 36 months to learn to walk with my club foot. I wasn’t solid on my right leg until I was six years old. Finally, my parents bought me skates and took me to an arena to try it. With limited mobility in my ankle, it was difficult. A year later I tried baseball. I played two games and I was sitting on the bench crying.
But when I found swimming, I was floating in the water, and I’ll say it again… Maybe THIS was it.
Full steam ahead
Five years later, I was swimming every day. But that “Maybe” was still spelled with a capital M. Swimming made me feel free like a fish in the water. I loved it and I was getting better every day. But I didn’t see swimmers like me competing at a high level until I saw Philippe Gagnon at the 1997 Canada Games in Brandon, Man.
This IS it, I told myself. No more “Maybe.” If Philippe could do it with a club foot, so could I. He became a mentor to me, and three years later we were teammates at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics. Participating in my first Games was a dream come true. Wearing the Maple Leaf. Winning medals. Realizing a dream.
But as soon as those Games were over a new dream came along. I realized no Canadians could see our performances because there was no broadcast coverage of the Paralympics at that time. I wanted to use my voice and make it an objective to break those barriers, to help the Paralympic movement get to a better place. It was fun to achieve podiums, but as I announce the end of my 20-year career today, what makes me most proud is the evolution of the movement over the five Games in which I competed. The movement, the Paralympic ‘brand’ has never been in better position with television coverage, hundreds of hours of web streaming and Canadians connecting directly with athletes on social media.
I’m proud we’ve been able to educate Canadians on what Para-sport is about and do our best to make the Paralympic medal worth the same as Olympic gold. Many sports integrate Para-athletes in their programs now. Swimming Canada has fully integrated annual trials to select the national teams. At Commonwealth Games, medals won by Para-athletes all count toward the total for Canada.
Now, about those medals: At the London 2012 Paralympics, I got back to the top of the podium in the 200m medley, which was probably the most special race of my career. I will remember that race forever. But I must admit getting medal number 20 was pretty special in my last race in 2016.
Rio was my fifth Paralympic Games, and I felt like I still had unfinished business. I entered my final race, the 400m freestyle, as the No. 4 seed. I had set aside medal expectations and just poured everything I had into my own race, the only thing I could control. At age 32, I somehow swam my lifetime best. When I touched the wall in third, I climbed on the lane rope to raise my arms in celebration. I got out of the water, kissed the pool deck and waved to all the Canadians who were cheering us on. I did an interview with Radio-Canada’s Jean St-Onge and I was so emotional, being able to share that moment with someone I’d had the chance to work with as a broadcaster, and someone who followed my career for all these years. I was crying and living the emotions. I knew it was probably my last Paralympic medal.
I considered going to Tokyo 2020. When I looked and did the math, there was no possibility to be on that podium in Japan. I realize all my objectives in sport were accomplished and it was time to say I had a great run and move on.
I miss the daily routine of swimming but what’s helping me is everything else happening in my life. Being back in school doing an executive MBA is very demanding, and my partner Annie and I welcomed baby Mila-Grace into our lives almost four months ago. Our family and school transition is coming at a perfect time. Maybe in a year from now, when school is over, I’m going to get a reality check, but at the moment I’m doing great.
People have been talking to me about retirement for a decade. It started after Beijing 2008, my third Games, when I “only” won bronze and was disappointed with my performance. Even though I was talking about it, if I can be honest, it really wasn’t me personally wanting to retire. It was the social pressure of people around me saying, “What are you going to do next?”
After London 2012, we had two major events — the 2013 world championships in Montreal and the 2015 Parapan Am Games in Toronto — which helped me stay within the sport. I wanted to be part of those events at home, and that made the four-year cycle much easier for me to stick with and be motivated, to continue to grow the sport, and grow the Paralympic movement.
Building a village
My career wasn’t just about quantity of medals, it was about quality. This fantastic journey gave me confidence, solid foundations, strength, and a family who helped me along the way. It was on top of the podium that I realized what “It takes a village” meant. My village is every teammate, every coach, every mentor, every volunteer. You have made me the person I am today. Thank you, and to all my collaborating partners, you are part of this extended family.
To Annie, my love, my best friend and partner in crime, to our beautiful newborn daughter Mila-Grace, to mom and dad, to my sister Genevieve and my friends, thank you for raising me, teaching me, challenging me and inspiring me to become a leader who is trying his best to make a positive change in our community.
I'm ready to be a father, a husband. I'm ready to help the next generation of athletes. I am ready to be an advocate for Para-sports. I am ready to continue to be the best role model I can be. I'm ready to build our next village.
Merci Canada, it’s been an honour!
(Top large photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images; Middle large photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images; Bottom large photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)