Outside the Aquatic Centre at the University of British Columbia, a large promotional poster for the school features the face of swimmer Annamay Pierse, who in 2009 set, and still holds, the women’s world record in the 200-metre breaststroke.
Pierse, however, won’t swim at the Olympics in London this summer. At 28, she fell short at Canada’s Olympic trials two months ago. It was the gutting end to two years of struggle after having been felled by a bout of Dengue fever, contracted in India during the Commonwealth Games.
As Pierse failed to reach the Olympics, a bright, young potential star is in ascent. In the 200-metre breaststroke qualifying final in Montreal, in which Pierse finished fifth, the victor was Tera Van Beilen, swimming one of the fastest times in the world this year.
Two days earlier, the day before her 19th birthday, Van Beilen’s joy burst forth in tears as she finished second in the 100-metre breaststroke, scoring her ticket to London, before wowing the Canadian swimming world with her victory in the 200.
Van Beilen attends and swims for UBC, after growing up in Oakville west of Toronto. She’s the first big-time swimmer in her athletic family, whose members include uncle Wayne van Dorp, who played in the NHL in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Van Beilen, 5 feet 10 inches, had had the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro among her goals. Now, given her speed at the trials, a medal in London is on the hastily revised list of goals – or, at least, making the finals of one of her events.
“It’s still a bit of a shock when people say, ‘Are you excited to go to London for the Olympics?’” Van Beilen said in an interview at the UBC pool on Thursday, her eyes alight, smiling, clad in a pink shirt, blue jeans and pink Nike high-tops at poolside. “It’s been crazy having to sign autographs, like, ‘For real?’”
This weekend at UBC, starting Friday, Van Beilen is among the Olympians in the water as Canada prepares in the pool for London Games at the annual Mel Zajac Jr. International meet.
After zero medals in the water in Athens eight years ago – the first zero in a half-century for Canada – the national program has been on a years-long rebuild under the watch of Pierre Lafontaine, Swimming Canada CEO and national coach. The country managed one medal, a bronze, in Beijing and aims for three podiums in London.
Competition at UBC will be significant. On the men’s side, South Korean star Tae-Hwan Park is among the attractions. Many top Canadian names, including London medal contender Brent Hayden from Mission near Vancouver, will swim.
For Van Beilen, the meet is a chance to refine her race pacing, but also to gauge herself. A teammate and rival is fellow Canadian and UBCer Martha McCabe, a 22-year-old who won bronze in the 200-metre breaststroke at the world championships last year, and was second to Van Beilen at the Olympic trials.
Among international talent, Leisel Jones from Australia will be a considerable force, a 26-year-old who has held the world record in both the 100- and 200-metre breaststroke.
While Pierse won’t swim at London, her presence in the pool will be felt. She set a rare swimming standard for a Canadian, and as a veteran of UBC, she has been a guiding light for Van Beilen and McCabe. And all three women have benefitted from the top-tier coaching of Jozsef Nagy, the legendary Hungarian breaststroke guru, brought on by Swimming Canada in 2006, a year after Lafontaine arrived to resuscitate the sport in the country.
Pierse was among the first to emerge in the new wave of Canadian swimmers. Van Beilen and McCabe are on the starting blocks to be next.
“Annamay set the tone of what great can be,” Lafontaine said. “We don’t have enough of those in Canada.”