By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)

PHOENIX, Arizona, July 10. THE dream of winning an Olympic gold medal--the apex of swimming success--starts as just that: a dream. It often takes years for what might seem both impossible and improbable to actually be within reach. Swimmers start molding their careers from a very early age: from the moment they first put on those oversized goggles and that baggy swimsuit. Maybe it started with a love for the water, or a competitive fire to win at any cost, but it takes a lot of bricks to build the foundation that holds up an Olympic dream.

Like all Olympians, I spent hours swimming back and forth looking down at that black line. But being prepared for standing on the blocks at an international competition took more than just all those practices I swam at the Stratford YMCA or the Texas A&M Recreation Center. You also have to learn to race, and you have to learn to race at different levels.

Giving younger swimmers access to foreign competition is an integral part of molding a successful national team. When I arrived at my first Olympics, I had already swum at one World Championships. At World Championships, I relied on my experiences from Pan Pacs for comfort, and at Pan Pacs? I remembered what I had learned at Junior Pan Pacs.

I did not swim very well at Junior Pan Pacific Championships: physically and psychologically, I was in water way over my head. In that moment, at 17 years of age, I wished I could have just avoided the meet completely, and returned to Canada with my tail between my legs. However, I now know how important this junior team experience was for me, and I have seen first hand a correlation between the recent emphasis on Canada's junior program and the strength of the national team rookies.

The European Junior Swim Championships that are taking place in Poznan, Poland, are a perfect example of one of those bricks that build successful swimming career. Peruse the meet records and you will recognize several names--like Yannick Agnel, Laszlo Cseh, and Yuliya Effimova--all who where learning how to win on the international stage before they ever got to a World Championships or the Olympic Games.

Effimova held the meet record in the 50-meter breaststroke... until tonight that is. It was broken, no, smashed, by Viktoriya Solntseva of the Ukraine. Her time of 30.83 ties her for seventh in the world so far this year, and also betters the previous meet record by over half a second.

Junior Championships, whether it is the Junior Worlds, Pan Pacifics or European Championships, are a foreshadow of what is to come in the next few years. Clearly, Solntseva will be one to watch.

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