Q&A: How Canada's Aurelie Rivard used pandemic lessons to fuel drive to podium

Canadian Paralympic swimmer Aurelie Rivard dives into the pool. (Swimming Canada)

All Aurelie Rivard does is win swimming medals for Canada. The Tokyo Paralympics are underway and Canada’s dominance in the pool has carried over from the Olympics to the Paralympic games.

The Canadian world record holder and five-time Paralympic swimming medalist won bronze in the women's S10 50-metre freestyle final at the Tokyo Paralympics on Wednesday.

The 25-year-old from St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., finished with a time of 28.11 seconds after winning gold in the event in 2016. Rivard is Canada's most decorated female Paralympian in Tokyo after winning four medals in Rio five years ago. The early medal is a good sign of things to come as she headed to Tokyo after not being able to compete in a meet for the last 18 months due to the pandemic.

Canada is competing in 18 different sports at the Games while hoping to exceed the 29 medals and 14th place overall finish in Rio. Like the summer Olympics Canada’s best chance to accrue medals is in the pool.

To help with that feat Wayne Gretzky Estates has teamed up with the Canadian Paralympic Committee to help support often overlooked Paralympians like Rivard.

Before she took off for Tokyo, I caught up with the Canadian swimmer and flag bearer at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics Closing Ceremony to talk about what support from someone like Wayne Gretzky means to her and what success looks like after a postponed games in 2020 and unusual training cycle in 2021.

Sportsnet.ca – What was it like when the Games were cancelled last summer?

Aurelie Rivard - I feel like we went through all of the emotion in the first week because before they were cancelled, Canada just pulled out. So that was like 48-72 hours of anxiety. It seemed like the worst option to us but it turned into the best one within the week. And honestly, since March 2020, I worked on just changing my mindset on setting new goals. I was forced to focus on my training because I had nothing else.

I had no swim meets coming up, nothing to hold on to. And especially in Quebec, where I train, we didn't exactly have a lot of support with the restrictions. So, I lost my coach for a month and a half. He wasn't allowed on deck anymore. We had to just be prepared for all of this to be taken away whenever. So, every day I was showing up, and it could be the last day.

Do you feel more or less prepared now than you would have been in 2020?

It was definitely challenging. But I think in the end, it's going to make us somehow mentally stronger to have put up with all of the negative side and had none of the positive, none of the competitions, no travelling, no friends, no teammates.

I had to learn to change my mindset. Without the racing, I had nothing else to do. So, my goals instead of being like, oh, well, I have to swim that time next week or win that medal in a month, it was more like, okay, I have to do my push off the walls, have to be stronger next week. I was really focusing on the little details of all things that in the end, I think will make a bigger difference, especially now that I'm getting older.

They are more and more and more important in the race if I want to keep succeeding. I was really showing up to the pool thinking it would be the last day. So, it was a lot more motivating. We didn't see it as a big mountain. I was really going day-by-day, week-by-week at the most, and then trying to get through each day. And it was a lot more motivating and not as, hard and challenging for the mental aspect.

One of the pluses of the additional time, is you have this great partnership now with Gretzky Estates. What does that mean to you to garner that type of support?

Honestly, it's just really nice, to first of all, feel supported and have people cheering for me back at home. And also, as a brand, the Wayne Gretzky Estates just have the same motto as I think any athlete would, especially my story, my journey. I feel like every single day I'm trying to “pursue greatness.” And so, it was just an easy match.

There is an association with Wayne Gretzky and everything he does and his nickname, “the Great one” with excellence. Is that added pressure to be aligned with him?

No, it's just recognition. That's something the Paralympic athletes struggle with. I feel, especially in the public eye and the media, so I don't see it as pressure. I actually take it as a push, we know what you've done. We acknowledge your career so far and all of the success that you had. And it's kind of nice also not compared to, obviously, but to be partnering with such a legend, especially in Canada right now, I just found it really, really nice and super exciting. And hopefully it's going to help the public see what we actually do, because I feel like most people just don't know how hard we work and all the sacrifices and efforts that we put in our sports.

How does that feel for Paralympic athletes when there is a lack of recognition, understanding, conversation, support?

That's a good question. It just shows me how much we love our sport to do all of the work and get, a tenth of what Olympic athletes get. And the Olympic athletes should get a lot more. It's a conversation that we need to keep having. We need to educate people to as to what Paralympic support is and who we are and share our story.

And that's what the Wayne Gretzky Estates are doing with partnering up with the COC and me. So that's a step in the right direction. Of course. We need to do a lot more. We need to answer questions. We need to ask questions. We need to speak up and really share our stories and try to get people's recognition.

You talk about recognition and we couldn't help but recognize and celebrate our Canadian Olympians and how well they did specifically our female Olympians, especially our Olympians in the pool? How excited are you to continue that momentum?

I felt like it set the mood. We have a lot of meetings here, and that's what we're talking about. We're like, for once, I feel like we're kind of lucky to be coming afterwards just because it was so uncertain. We didn't know what to expect from our athletes, from our swimmers after the year because nobody was in the same condition. Now we got to see that most of them stepped up, had amazing swims, amazing performances. And so, we know that it's possible it got us super excited.

I originally trained with not only Paralympic athletes but the other national team members. And so, I got the same type of training, and I'm super excited to see what comes out of it. We know things are going to go well. We know that things aren't as bad as we've been seeing in the past year in the media. It really just said the mood and our girls are doing amazing. And I'm pretty sure that our team is going to follow that.

In Rio, you were the flag bearer for the closing ceremonies, which is a nod to the fact that you had a great games. What does success look like for you in these games?

For these games again, like, I had to all year long, I had to bring it back to me and my training because that's the only thing that I could control. So, goals are the exact same. I want to break my personal records. So, swim faster than I ever have or swim faster than in Rio. And then technically, some of these swims are world records. So hopefully I will break them. And usually when you break a world record, then you win the gold medal.

So instead of taking it, as in, I want to win the medal and hopefully have a good swim, I take it the reverse way. And because I know what I've been doing, I know how I trained. I know that I'm ready. And I know, now the only thing that I trust is me and my preparation, so I can be proud with or without the medal if I have the swim that I should have or that I want.

You also know, given the real COVID restrictions and concerns that, unlike Rio, there will be less support staff, family and fans around. Have you prepared for the fact that the experience in that sense won't be exactly the same?

After complaining for, like, six months about it, because, I am a different kind of swimmer. I use the energy to push me. And that's also what makes it fun. What makes the experience fun. It's like the whole social thing. People around me, too. I actually again to take it the other way around. So instead of starting with a big experience that we usually have and then having one thing after the other taken away from us, I chose to look at it the opposite way. Okay, well, we have a pool, we're going to train in it.

And then everything else is like a bonus or a plus. So, I'm just having girls next to me. Racing me is a plus, because all year long when I was racing, I was racing completely alone. So that's a positive. And then through the Olympic Games, we found out that the swimmers can be in the stands because at first, they weren't allowed to. So that's also good to kind of try and get a little bit of atmosphere. So that's another plus. And then we're going to be able to see friends in the village because at first, we were supposed to bubble.

So that's another plus. So, I'm really taking the opposite approach and I feel like we have no choice if we want to enjoy ourselves a little bit over there.

But when you come back, you'll be able to enjoy yourself. Certainly. How do you plan to celebrate getting through a five-year Olympic journey this time when you come home?

AR - Spend the weekend at the estate and enjoy the products! But honestly, I neglected my friends and my family so much, of course, with the restrictions, but also with training. And I'm flying straight into my sister's place. And I want to see everybody that I haven't seen and just go to bed past 10:00 p.m. knowing that it's okay and not a big deal if I can go to bed later and stuff. So, I just really want to see other people than my coach and my teammates.

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