07/12/2012 4:12 PM
Photo by Mathew McCarthy/The Record
VICTORIA, B.C. — Julia Wilkinson sized up the strapping young Texan beside her in the campus training room and spoke first.
“Shoulders suck, right?” she said.
That was an understatement. Just weeks after she exploded onto Canadians’ television sets at the 2008 Olympics, Stratford’s favourite swimmer learned a pain in her shoulder was actually a four-centimetre tear in her labrum.
After surgery, she watched much of the 2009 season pass by from the sidelines. Beijing was supposed to be her coming out party — but here she was, only a few months later, thinking about quitting swimming entirely.
In the middle of her agonizing recovery, she walked into the athletic treatment centre at Texas A&M University and sat down next to another student athlete who was also nursing a sore shoulder.
That student, a Texas-raised baseball player who had a case of tendinitis, was Shane Minks. There was a mutual spark. He went home to his roommates that afternoon and announced, “I met my wife today.”
He wasn’t kidding. Minks and Wilkinson are to be married this January.
But first, his soon-to-be bride has a comeback to complete. Wilkinson has a date with the 2012 Summer Olympics in London — and she’s got her sights set firmly on the top of the podium.
Three years removed from that devastating shoulder injury, Wilkinson is back to being “a killer in the water,” as her fiancé puts it in his southern drawl. With the Olympics just weeks away, she’s poised to show the world just how fast she can be.
“This is kind of what she lives for. She loves the big moment. She loves to compete and she loves to race,” said Minks, now a high-school coach in his home state.
Wilkinson is a special talent in the pool, with 22 national titles, 20 individual Big 12 college championships, an NCAA title, and six international medals to her name. But it hasn’t been an easy road to the top.
Four years ago in Beijing, she swam a dizzying 11 races in six different events, helping set five Canadian records and making the finals in two relay events.
This summer in London, things will be much simpler.
Now 25, and having tamed the anxiety that used to make her nauseated before races, she’s focusing on just two events — the 100-metre backstroke and 100 freestyle. She dropped the 200-metre individual medley, where she had her best showing in Beijing with a seventh overall finish.
That event, which is 50-metre legs of freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke combined into one race, had long been her best race.
But making the tough decision to drop it and refocus her game plan on the shorter events allowed the swimmer to train on her strengths, and shed valuable split-seconds in the pool.
She’s swimming faster than ever. At Olympic trials in Montreal this spring, she swam under a minute in the 100-metre backstroke for the first time in her life, with a time of 59.85 seconds.
That sub-minute performance, ranked ninth in the world this season, showed her she could break through her mental barriers and challenge the absolute best.
It inspired her to increase her goals for London — she wants gold in the backstroke — but she knows she still needs to get faster by about a second to stand on the podium. If she does that, Wilkinson would be the first Canadian woman to medal in swimming since Marianne Limpert in 1996.
She won’t be satisfied with anything less.
“Every day I go to bed thinking, ‘Did I do everything I could today?’ ” she said. “This has been the progression of my entire career. Nothing has ever been good enough. That’s kind of what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Wilkinson is a bulkier, tougher version of the swimmer who wowed Canadians four years ago. Training out of the national swim centre in Victoria, she’s spending more time in the gym to build muscle for the shorter 100-metre events, which her coach Randy Bennett thinks is her best bet for a medal.
At a recent workout at the Canadian Sport Centre Pacific, she did intense 30-second intervals of crunches, heavy ball tosses and explosive jumps, designed to simulate her sprints in the pool.
“We’re trying to peak her strength and her power going into the Olympics,” said Cam Birtwell, the swimmer’s strength and conditioning coach. “We’re trying to teach Julia’s muscles to switch on and produce a lot of force quickly, while telling other muscles to switch off. We’re making her more efficient when she moves.”
And she’s channeling yoga now to control the anxiety that used to cause her to throw up before races. That was the suggestion of Coach Bennett, who was tired of watching Wilkinson expel her nervous energy into trash cans, pool floors and even her own parka.
Once a week, she has a one-on-one yoga session with an instructor who tailors the lesson to conquer the swimmer’s internal demons. Wilkinson proudly said it helped her get through Olympic trials this spring without getting sick.
“I used to be a huge problem at swim meets. I was throwing up in some very interesting places … It made me hate swimming,” she said. “It’s really been amazing seeing how I have the power to control my emotions and my brain.”
But the mind remains a funny thing. One trick she has used since college to help her push in the last 20 metres of a tough race is thinking of The Final Countdown, the iconic song by the hair band Europe. It just kind of stuck.
“The last 20 metres, it feels like a piano falls on you,” she said. “What I would do is start singing that song in my head … and then I had shoulder surgery and didn’t race for a whole year. In my first race back, I started hearing The Final Countdown again.”
Wilkinson has more than ’80s rock on her side as she zeroes in on London. She also has cutting-edge sports science, funded by the federal Own the Podium program.
Inside a laboratory at the Canadian Sport Centre near Victoria, experts are trying give her an edge over her opponents by studying how her body is responding to training at the molecular level.
In a room where they keep strange stationary bikes attached to monitors and stockpile dozens of oxygen tanks, a woman in a white lab coat measured Wilkinson’s hemoglobin levels. A green clip was applied to the swimmer’s nose, and she was asked her to blow into an odd-looking tube attached to two inflatable bags, which ‘marked’ her blood with carbon dioxide.
“The idea is the more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen your body can carry, which should lead to better performances,” explained Liz Johnson, a physiologist at the centre.
But a more focused, muscular and Zen-like Wilkinson hasn’t completely lost touch with her feminine side. She still paints her toes bright colours before meets and wears dramatic fake nails in races. For London, she’s planning something in a red, white and gold theme.
And although she hasn’t lived in Stratford since high school, Wilkinson still considers herself a small-town girl from the same place that gave the world Justin Bieber and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
She loves the Bard and proudly carries around a pink Bieber towel, admitting she cried when she watched the teen idol’s movie, Never Say Never.
“He talked about how no one believes in a kid from Stratford, Ontario and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I totally understand that!’ ” she said, laughing.
Stratford was where she began to swim competitively at eight, learning the bleary eyed routine of a swimmer with countless pre-dawn practices in the local YMCA’s four-lane, 23-metre pool. It’s where her Olympic dream first took root, and where her English teacher mother, Mary, and a family doctor father, Mark, still live.
“I have a lot of pride coming from a small town, and not having those same opportunities as people who came out of those big cities with nice pools and amazing coaching and people to train with,” she said.
Stratford is also where Minks proposed to her, on a foggy day last December by her favourite park fountain near the Festival Theatre. They’ll be married in Texas, but guests will eat her hometown’s famous Rheo Thompson chocolates.
Her father was a gifted hockey and baseball player, but Wilkinson said she didn’t inherit any of his hand-eye co-ordination. She only went into swimming because her older sister Jane was in it, but by age 10 or 11, there were glimmers of her talent.
“I’m just super competitive, and I think that comes from being the youngest child. I just wanted to beat my sister, then I wanted to beat the next person, then the next person,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a feeling in the world I love more than winning.”
In her last year of high school, Wilkinson moved to Toronto to train at the North York Aquatic Club and enrolled in a special program for elite student-athletes at Vaughan Road Academy. Swimming was by then the dominant activity in her life. She missed her prom because of her sport’s demands, but it was already clear her destiny was in the pool.
Wilkinson went on a full scholarship to Texas A&M, where she would help bring home the school’s first Big 12 title and won piles of individual medals including gold in the 100-yard freestyle at the NCAA Championships in 2010.
Despite her success, Wilkinson still flies under the radar outside of Canada. Unlike her more famous teammate Ryan Cochrane and roommate Paula Findley, she’s stayed off the cereal boxes.
Canada’s new queen of the pool remains down to earth, and immediately likable, punctuating her conversation with giddy confessions and bursts of laughter. Her fiancé said she’s so grounded because she worked hard for everything she’s ever had in her sport.
“She started from the very bottom. It’s been a progression her entire career, from that 25-yard pool in Stratford to being a medal contender in her second Olympics,” said Minks, whose pep talks have earned him the nickname Coach Minks.
And that torn labrum that had her thinking about quitting swimming back in 2009? It turns out it was a blessing in disguise. The injury forced her to become a better leg kicker, improving a weakness in her game and making her faster today.
Without that bum shoulder, she never would have walked into that training room at Texas A&M and spotted that baseball player, either. The injury led the swimmer to her future husband and her biggest supporter.
“He believes in me more than I do, and more than anyone else does. That’s the best thing anyone could ask for,” she said. “So I guess everything does happen for a reason.”