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Training with NextGen Program puts Olympics in crosshairs for young swimmers

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VICTORIA –  It’s only about 90 minutes from Ladysmith, B.C., to Victoria, but when Faith Knelson began training with the NextGen Institute Program at Saanich Commonwealth Place she thought she’d stepped into a different world.

Knelson grew up training five times a week in a four-lane, 25-metre pool. That all changed when she got into the water alongside the Olympic and world championship medallists of the High Performance Centre – Victoria.

“I was a big fish in a little pond,” said Knelson. “I came here and thought ‘I’m a goldfish in the ocean.’ ”

The 16-year-old found herself in the water eight times a week for sessions lasting 2 1/2 hours. She also began weight training for the first time in her life.

“It was a huge shock,” said Knelson. “It was a big deal for me for the first four or five months. I would walk in every single day and think ‘I actually train here.’ ”

Knelson’s decision to join the NextGen Program meant moving about 90 kilometres down the road. For Jade Hannah, taking the same plunge meant travelling across the country.

Hannah lived in Beaver Bank, N.S., and trained in Halifax, about 35 kilometres away. She had investigated other programs before deciding to come to Victoria in October 2016 when she was just 14 years old.

“It was a hard decision, but I think it was also a needed decision,” said Hannah. “I looked at all my options before I took the big leap.

“When I came here to try it out I loved it. I felt I fit right in with the group.”

Both swimmers have gone on to graduate to Ryan Mallette’s High Performance Centre – Victoria program, and represented Canada at the recent Commonwealth Games. Mallette said the decision to leave friends and family behind takes incredible dedication from athletes such as Hannah.

“It shows a ton of commitment,” said Mallette. “It shows a ton of desire to do whatever it takes to get to the next level.”

The NextGen Institute Program is a full-fledged Swimming Canada program, in partnership the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, Swim BC and Own the Podium.

The program’s goal is to ensure a progressive stream of coaches and athletes are being trained to standards required to win Olympic and World Championship medals. Selected athletes train at the High Performance Centre – Victoria. Lead Coach Brad Dingey heads the program with Mallette and other Swimming Canada high performance staff offering technical oversight.

Mallette said NextGen athletes receive “an absolutely intense mentorship program.” The HPC-Victoria has produced Olympic and world championship medallists such as Ryan Cochrane and Hilary Caldwell.

“These young (people) come into the program and are immediately immersed with world-class athletes,” said Mallette. “They get to be side-by-side with these professional athletes and see what it takes to succeed at that level.

“The older athletes get the benefit of being pushed by these younger athletes.”

Hannah, a backstroker, said she was intimidated when she first found herself sharing a pool with Caldwell, who won a bronze medal in the 200-metre back at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“After a couple of weeks, I thought, she’s human, I’m human,” said the 16-year-old.

“I felt like it really pushed me. Just to have somebody that experienced in the group really taught me how to act like a high-performance athlete. Just to follow in her footsteps, what she was doing every day and compare it to what I was doing every day really opened my eyes to what could be possible for the future.”

The investment in the two swimmers is already beginning to pay dividends.

Hannah won a gold medal in the 50-metre backstroke at the 2017 FINA World Junior Championships and was part of 4×100-m medley relay team that won gold.

At the recent Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, Hannah was seventh in the 50-m backstroke and eighth in the 100-m back.

Knelson won silver medals in the 50-m and 100-m breaststroke at the 2017 world juniors. She also was a member of the champion 4×100-m medley relay team.

At the Commonwealth Games Knelson just missed the podium in the 100-m breaststroke, finishing fourth. She also was seventh in the 50-m breast.

When Hannah first moved to B.C. she spent a month living with Knelson. Her mother and pet shih tzu named Chestnut later relocated to Victoria. The camaraderie she felt in the program helped Hannah in the transition to a new school and different environment.

“I don’t think I’d be exactly where I am today without the NextGen program,” said Hannah. “I felt like the group incorporated me right away. I didn’t feel like an outsider at all.

“I never felt like I was doing something alone. It was a whole group thing which I really like. We pushed each other every single day in practice.”

Knelson said the program has given her a road map to reaching the next level.

“Breaststroke is a pretty technical stroke,” she said. “It takes a lot out of a person to be one of the best in the world.

“I think I’m on my way to that.”

Mallette said both swimmers are training with an eye on the Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

“I think you look at getting ready for Tokyo then we’ll focus on the next quadrennial after that,” he said. “They will be in their prime at Paris, but I don’t think these girls are too young for Tokyo by any means.”

Swimmers wishing to apply to the NGIP-VIC should contact Michelle Poirier – Swimming Canada, Manager, High Performance Centres and Coaches (mpoirier@swimming.ca). by Aug. 11.

Athletes selected to the program will have demonstrated potential, with benchmarks based on the Swimming Canada “On Track” times. Participants pay a registration fee of $3,100 for the year.

Athletes have targeted access to the HPC – Victoria Integrated Support Team (IST), which includes specialists in physiotherapy, massage therapy, mental performance, biomechanics, physiology, nutrition, and strength and conditioning.

For further information, please consult the 2018-2019 Selection Guidelines HERE.: NGIP-VIC-Application-Process