TORONTO – Longtime national team swimmer Martha McCabe is settling into retirement, and moving ahead with a venture that connects Olympians with aspiring young athletes across the country.
McCabe has launched Head to Head (www.headtohead.ca), with the stated goal to provide “mentorship to youth allowing them to grow with positive self images at the most crucial part of their life; a time when they are sometimes less inclined to comply with ideas from parents, coaches, and teachers.”
The program pairs an age group sports club with an Olympian of the same sport for an ongoing mentorship commitment.
“The sports club pays a monthly fee which provides them with an Olympian to come into the club twice a month for a visit, to send in an educational video once a month, that follows a strict curriculum set out by Head-to-Head and to be available via email for the kids for further mentorship,” McCabe explains.
“The Olympian will be sharing the expertise and experience that they’ve acquired after all these years in sport and re-injecting it into the system. Most of the cost will go directly to support the Olympian as they compete or transition out of sport,” she says. “It will provide kids a sense of belonging to an Olympian, let them see that we are more alike than different and build confidence to go after whatever they want, not just sport.”
McCabe came up with the idea as she was driving across Canada after competing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where she was co-captain with Ryan Cochrane. Her Martha’s Canadian Drive initiative spanned 59 days on the road, with 45 different speaking or coaching sessions reaching at least 3,000 people face-to-face.
“The big reason for me doing the drive was to go and show up in front of these kids and show them first-hand that Olympians are just like them. We come from the exact same sport system as they do. I felt like, on my tour, showing up once was great to all these clubs: The kids loved it, the clubs loved it, they said it was inspiring. But I felt like I still really didn’t achieve that goal because there were a lot of kids sitting at the back of the room wide-eyed and scared to ask a question,” she said.
Later in the year she attended the Game Plan Summit, whichbrought together 150 national team athletes for three days of learning, connecting, and growing as part of the total athlete wellness program launched by the Canadian Olympic Committee and Deloitte.
“I saw a lot of Olympians stand up and share their transition stories (into post-sports careers). I was blown away how severe some of these transitions were and how bad it can be for athletes who are transitioning.”
From there the Head to Head idea began to crystallize. So far she has about 20 Olympians on board representing six sports, and hopes to launch with clubs across the country in the fall.
Although she had not officially announced her retirement, McCabe now says she knew in Rio that her 200-m breaststroke heat there would be her last race. She went into her second Olympics with at least a top-16 performance and a semifinal berth in mind as a goal, but fell short, finishing 23rd in a time of 2:28.62.
“It was almost like everything slowed down. I was just soaking in that this was my final race. In the final four or five strokes I knew I was done and I felt relief,” McCabe says. “It was relief from a full decade straight of every single thing I did being done with a purpose to achieve greater things than I already had in swimming. And not just in swimming but in the 200-m breaststroke, it’s so specific, it was literally every little thing I did.
McCabe reached at least one major international final every year she was on the national team except her final one. The Toronto native burst onto the scene in 2009 alongside fellow breaststroker Annamay Pierse, who also trained with Jozsef Nagy at the Swimming Canada High Performance Cenre – Vancouver. She finished seventh at FINA World Championships that year in Rome, setting a personal best of 2:22.75 in the semifinal at the peak of the tech suit era. She then climbed onto the podium with bronze at the 2011 edition in Shanghai in a textile time of 2:24.81.
McCabe has fond memories of that medal, achieved with her parents Joe and Nancy, and sisters Carolyn and Allison in the crowd. She was also able to visit with brother Jeff shortly thereafter.
“It was the first time I could finally show all the work I’d done. My family was in Shanghai and I had been away in Vancouver training so long it was like showing them, ‘Guys, this is what I’ve been working on.’ They were able to share in that accomplishment and seeing that pride was one of the best moments of my swim career” McCabe says.
She finished fifth at the London 2012 Olympics in 2:23.16, and considered retirement afterward. But when Ben Titley moved to Toronto to coach at the High Performance Centre – Ontario she decided to give training at home a shot. She swam “one more year” for four years, sticking with Titley through 2015 before again moving within the HPC network to return to Nagy at the HPC-Vancouver for her final year.
During that time she overcame a stress fracture in her clavicle in 2014 to qualify for finals at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (6th) and Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia (8th).
The following year, her 2:24.51 at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games was her fastest time since London. She earned a silver medal behind teammate Kierra Smith, and a whirlwind of media attention that came with performing in a home Games. She went on to represent Canada at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, her seventh worlds (four long-course, three short-course).
“I don’t regret for a second going that whole extra quadrennial. Yeah I battled through ups and downs, but the second quadrennial for me was so different from the first. My approach was different, I was so much more aware of everything going on around me and that’s where I learned all the lessons,” she says.
But “it was all-encompassing, so to finally take the foot off the accelerator, I think that’s where the relief comes in,” she says.
Although she still swims once a week, she’s also tried her hand at all the sports she put on hold, enjoying hockey, running, cycling, hiking and ultimate Frisbee. And she’s already starting to apply the lessons and skills developed in her swimming career to her next endeavours such as Head to Head.
“As long as I’m passionate about it, and I am, I’m going to care about it enough to make it a priority and make it successful as much as I possibly can.”