By Jim Morris
Change isn’t always easy but sometimes it’s necessary.
Para-swimmer Tess Routliffe returned from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games with a silver medal in the S7 200-metre individual medley and renewed confidence in her ability. The 18-year-old also realized if she wanted to reach her potential she needed leave the comfort zone of her home town of Caledon, Ont.
Routliffe made the decision to move to Montreal where she enrolled in Concordia University and began training at the High Performance Centre – Quebec under coach Mike Thompson.
So far the change has paid dividends both in and out of the pool. The move has helped Routliffe build on the foundation laid by her previous coach Courtney Desjardins.
“I’ve honestly loved this year,” said Routliffe. “It was a great year moving off the Games. It was something new. I didn’t come back and get into my regular routine.
“I had a totally different life to figure out and start. I enjoyed meeting all the people I have met in Montreal. I have put in a lot of work.”
One of the biggest advantages of training at the High Performance Centre is Routliffe has a program designed for her. She also is in the water with other nationally ranked Para-swimmers. Routliffe, a dwarf, was the only Para-swimmer at her former club in Caledon.
“The centre gives you the opportunity to train with people that are like you,” she said. “Before I was with a small, little club that was aged eight to 17. I was the oldest one there. Even though I was the oldest I was one of the slowest.
“I was basically alone for most of the things I did. I would travel to meets alone. Now I get to travel with my teammates.”
Thompson has seen an improvement in Routliffe’s swimming.
“The amount of time we have spent together this year I think has been pretty beneficial,” he said. “Just in terms of what she has been able to do has been much stronger than where she was at this time last year.
“You have a program that is designed for an individual rather than a program that is designed for 30 people.”
There’s also what Thompson describes as the “shared experience” of being at the centre.
“I don’t think she had a ton in common with athletes who don’t compete at the same level she does,” he said. “She may be physically and time wise the same speed as some of the people in her other club, but those people might be at a provincial level and never really beyond that. They maybe haven’t experienced heats and finals.
“Rio was a 10-day meet. She has been in very stressful situations.”
Most club swimmers also don’t face the pressures nationally ranked athletes deal with in and out of the water.
“Her carding money, her ability to stay in a centre, her ability to stay on the national team, her ability to do guest speaking, really rely on her results and what she is able to do,” said Thompson. “Socially for her, it’s really good to be with people that can share the experience with her.”
Living in a major city also provided its challenges.
“At home, most people know you,” Routliffe said. “They already knew I was a dwarf. It wasn’t really a shock to them anymore.
“In a big city like Montreal you know nobody. Walking down the street or in the subway, it’s a totally different atmosphere. It’s a learning process. It’s learning how to ignore people, learning how to be confident with who you are. It’s a bit of a struggle but I think surrounding myself with the right people helps.”
Speaking French was another factor.
“It’s actually improved quite a lot,” said Routliffe, who had taken eight years of French immersion. “My understanding has got a lot better. Now it’s just trying to speak it more often with my peers.”
Routliffe made her international debut at the 2015 World Para Swimming Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, where she won a silver medal in the 200-m IM and finished fourth in four events. She currently holds five Canadian records and has taken on more of a leadership role on the Para-swimming team.
“I have more of a background of swimming, knowing what I’m doing, even just how to race,” she said. “I’m not a rookie on the team any more. Now I can do a leadership role.
“Being more confident with myself, that’s enabled me to be more confident with others and helping them out with their confidence. I (turned) to people on the team when I was scared and didn’t know what I was doing. Look where it got me.”
Winning a medal in Rio has allowed Routliffe to take an important step in her career.
“It was like an open door,” she said. “It made me realize how it felt to achieve what I wanted and get that medal. I was able to take on a new role and be a completely different swimmer because I had that confidence. I knew I had potential and I knew I could do it and I did it.
“For the first four years of my swimming I was learning how to swim and how to be a swimmer. Now I’ve done the basics. Now it’s getting down to the details and becoming the best I can be.”