Para-swimmer taking competition break one stroke at a time

Camille Bérubé. File photo.

By Kieran Heffernan

For para-swimmer Camille Bérubé, uncertainty is the challenge of the moment.

The two-time Paralympian, who races in the S7 class based on her impairment and in all five different strokes, is partially paralyzed in both legs. And while she’s overcome setbacks in her career before, the unknown circumstances of the 2021 games can still be hard.

“We don’t know under what circumstances they’re going to be able to host the Games. So if the situation doesn’t really change until the Games, I don’t see how Games can happen, like without a vaccine for example,” she said.

Bérubé came 9th at the 2016 Paralympics in the 100 metre breaststroke, and won three medals at the 2015 Para-Pan Am Games. She hasn’t qualified yet for Tokyo, but essentially needs to be ranked between 5th and 8th in the world in order to represent Canada. The Canadian trials were supposed to be held in April, but have now been pushed back a year.

The first three months of the pandemic were difficult for training. At first Bérubé was mainly using a handcycle five times a week, and then as the weather got warmer she attempted some open water swimming.

“But it’s not the same, and I’m not a good open water swimmer. I’m terrified of lakes, so I definitely find comfort in a pool and in lane ropes and the flags,” she laughed.

For the past seven weeks, Bérubé has been able to get back into the pool, although at a different facility than usual with an outdoor instead of indoor pool (she says it’s nice not being inside all summer). There’s a one-hour workout restriction, so she’s only doing about half her usual volume and intensity.

“We’re not really looking at how fast I’m going right now or how far I’m going in a workout. It’s just about getting that feeling back and working on drills to get my aquatic literacy back on track.” That aquatic literacy is important because “swimming is a very particular sport. It’s all about the feeling of the water and you can lose it very, very quickly,” she said.

The extra year before the Paralympics has afforded Bérubé some more flexibility with her schedule. She’s used the time to get outdoors more and enjoy time with her family, she says.

But still, she felt frustrated coming out of what was a three-month break.

“It’s hard mentally because I know how far I have to go in order to be able to get back to the top of my shape, which I was when everything was shut down,” Bérubé said. “But I’ve had a bunch of setbacks in my career, and this is different, but it’s not that different. You learn how to be resilient and just find ways to stay happy and focus on your mood and things like that.”

For Paralympians especially, the risks created by COVID-19 are particularly concerning. But despite the current uncertainty, Bérubé isn’t too concerned.

“We’re a more vulnerable or at-risk population with COVID, so it’s obviously something that the organizations need to consider, and I have no doubt that they are considering it,” she said. “I have no doubt that if it’s not safe, they won’t be able to run the games, so they will have very strict measures in place and it’s not something that worries me necessarily.”

Although she’s had plenty of international experience, she said she believes Tokyo will be much different than Games she’s gone to in the past, and not just because of safety precautions.

“Once we’re reunited next year at the Games, it’s going to be the most joyful reunion for sport and the biggest celebration of athleticism probably in history, which is pretty cool, to be part of something like that.”

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