By Jason Tillotson, Swimming World College Intern.
The World Swimming Championships this past month was filled with excitement, surprises and insanely fast swimming. It was also the meet where we saw, for the first time in long time, someone get out of a race without finishing it. That person was Canada’s Sydney Pickrem. In the women’s 200m Individual Medley semi-final, Pickrem swallowed an immense amount of water during the first 50 and was unable to finish the race, forcing her to get out of the pool.
Pickrem is a rising Junior at Texas A&M University with a long list of accolades that include finding herself in multiple A-finals at Division I NCAA’s and SEC conference championships. She broke out onto the the international scene back in 2013 at the Junior Pan Pacific Swimming Championships where she won her first international medal in the 200m IM.
Pickrem hails from Clearwater, Florida where she formally represented Clearwater Aquatic Team, under world-renowned coach Randy Reese. Pickrem, was gracious enough to grant me an interview despite her busy post-worlds travel schedule. We discussed the ups and downs of the meet, her plans moving forward and more in our interview below.
Describe what it feels like to go from a young age-group swimmer from Clearwater, Florida to one of the world’s fastest swimmers.
I honestly still don’t feel like one of the worlds fastest swimmers. I never really considered myself a world class swimmer until after the Olympics and I kind of told myself “hey I can compete with the best.” I’m so thankful to have grown up and trained in Clearwater. I wouldn’t have become the swimmer I am without the help of Randy [Reese] and Clearwater Aquatics team.
What were your emotions like last summer when you earned a spot to represent your country at the Olympic Games?
I think the emotion I felt the most after making the Olympic team was relief. The Olympic year was so stressful and to finally get a spot on the team I was honored.
Coming off an impressive first Olympics, a sixth place finish as a 19-year-old is no slouchy performance, what were your expectations for Worlds?
Budapest was my second senior worlds and I hoped to podium. I really believed in my chances because of how much I grew after the Olympics and I knew I had medal potential.
Let’s talk about that 200 IM…of course the pressure must have been immense going into that race…being seeded third behind the world’s best and being much younger than the rest of the field, how did you handle that pressure?
Honestly I didn’t want to overthink the pressure of the race. I knew my chances of medaling were high and I just wanted to perform to the best of my ability. I wasn’t successful with times at the Olympics and I just wanted to better my personal best.
Many reports say you swallowed a lot of water and that was a contributing reason as to why you got out of the pool…a completely understandable reason but, what was going through your head during that first 50?
It’s hard to really remember all of my thoughts. Going from heats to semis I wanted to improve little details of my race. On the first 50 I wanted to have a good breakout with high tempo so I think that’s what I was focusing on. But by the end of the 50 I choked on water continuously within the last 15 meters and I had no choice but to try and catch my breath.
If you could go back to that semi-final, would you still get out of the pool?
If I could go back to that final, I would still get out. Throughout the rest of the meet I probably re-swam that race in my head 1000 times. At first I was just wondering how I did that, how I just got out and didn’t finish the race. I’m not someone to give up and to not finish broke my heart. But later on after I thought about the race with a clear mind I realized there is nothing else I could’ve done. I could’ve stopped on the wall and caught my breath and kept going, finishing way behind, but what good would that have done. I have no regrets from that race.
What were your teammates reaction to your decision?
My teammates were nothing but supportive. At first they didn’t know how to approach me or really understand what even happened. I was so scared that I let everyone down but everyone was just concerned for my own well being.
Randy Reese was actually the second person I called after my boyfriend. I just called him crying my eyes out, embarrassed, upset, but mostly angry. He calmed me down and explained to me there was absolutely nothing else I could’ve done. He was never disappointed, just confident in me that I would overcome this obstacle and still perform well later on in the meet. In his own words, “you’re better at the 4 IM anyway”
Despite the adversity, you were able to bounce back nearly a week later and win a bronze in an event that’s arguably more strenuous than the 200. How were you able to do that?
I was able to come back because of my coaches, teammates, and family. I seriously could not have made it throughout the meet without them. My boyfriend was so supportive. He let me scream, yell, and cry and never gave up on me. My mom & brother helped me understand that there was nothing else I could’ve done and gave me so much love and support. My teammates from Canada and A&M were just concerned for my well being & offered any help that I needed. And my coaches, Randy Reese, Steve Bultman, and Ryan Mallette believed that I could comeback from the disappointment. I got back to work right away the next day with lots of butterfly. I needed to workout my anger in a couple practices before the 400 IM.
After Penny Oleksiak became your country’s youngest Olympic Champion and Kylie Masse breaking the WR in the 100 Backstroke and of course your Canadian record in the 200 IM, your world championship bronze in the 400 IM…What’s it like to be a part of a young, up and coming Canadian national team?
Being part of an up and coming team like Canada at the moment is inspiring. I think out results from Rio made the world realize the capabilities we already knew we had. Getting the results such as podiums and world records are goals that I believe we are all trying to move towards. We just keep getting better and better. The momentum is infectious and I just want to continue to make Canada proud.
What are you looking towards now? What’s next for Sydney Pickrem?
Right now I’m excited to take a little break. Next year I’m motivated to have an ever better college season. Without trials in April next year, I’ll really be able to focus on NCAA. Then quickly after I’ll gear up for trials and Pan Pacs next summer. As always my goal for every year is best times & whatever place that may be, then that’s how it will be. I will always strive to just do my best.