By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)
KAZAN, Russia, July 16. This week, the Russians impressed not only their home crowd but also the rest of the swimming world at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia. Swimmers who were merely using this as a stepping-stone to World Championships threw down some times that would have impressed a few weeks from now, let alone prior to taper. Whatever excitement and anticipation we had for Worlds has now been heightened thanks to the likes of Yuliya Efimova and Vladimir Morozov, among others.
But there is something else that really makes the World University Games special, and it is something that became obvious throughout the week as the smiling faces of swimmers filled my newsfeed on Facebook. Day after day, swimmers continued to post photos of themselves reunited with their "team", even though every swimmer in the photo was representing a different country in Kazan.
Although I never swam at a World University Games, I had a similar experience at the 2008 Olympics. Our Texas A&M women's contingent consisted of myself, Christine Marshall (USA), Alia Atkinson (Jamaica), and Triin Aljand (Estonia). Even though we wore different caps on the blocks in Beijing, we still felt like we were a team because we had all trained together prior to our trials and watched each other with pride as we were named to our respective teams.
We knew our Olympic goals and trained together up to our staging camps when we were finally forced to go our separate ways. One of my fondest memories of the Olympics was right before my 200 IM final: even though there were two Americans in the race with me, Christine Marshall cheered for me, a Canadian, as I stepped onto the blocks. We were a team; we supported one another regardless of the flag on our cap.
Even though I don't have any first-hand experience with this kind of team unity at World University Games, instinct and easy access to swimmers' social media accounts tells me that this bond is even more apparent at World University Games.
Obviously, those who swam in Kazan this week are members of collegiate squads, or will be come fall. Thanks in huge part to the NCAA system, there are many swimmers who represent the same college team but different countries. A good portion of the Canadian team was made up of swimmers who train in the US during the school year, and that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reach of American recruiting.
World bests aside, the swim meet in Kazan epitomized this team dualism that can be found at international competition: swimmers are not just swimming for their country, but for their university as well. When you look at it that way, it's no wonder some swimmers are busting out ridiculous swims prior to worlds: when you have the power of two teams behind you rather than one, you have twice as many reasons to swim fast.
Julia Wilkinson-Minks is a two-time Olympian for Canada and was a finalist in the 200-meter IM at the 2008 Beijing Games. In 2010, she became Texas A&M's first ever NCAA champion in swimming when she won the 100-yard freestyle. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Speech Communication. Julia retired from competitive swimming following the London Olympic Games and now lives in Texas with her husband Shane.
Follow her on twitter @juliah2o