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By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)
BARCELONA, Spain, August 2. WHILE most of the eyes of the swimming world will be on Missy Franklin making a run for yet another gold medal in the women’s 200-meter backstroke, there are other stories to tell within that event. One of them is new Canadian record holder Hilary Caldwell.
In April of last year, Caldwell swam her way onto her first Canadian National Team–the Olympic team–by coming second in the 200 backstroke, which was no easy feat. Compared to other events at Canadian trials, where only the winner would be heading to London because no one else managed to get under the time standard, the women’s 200 backstroke final in Montreal had five swimmers under the FINA A cut. Hilary was the second fastest of those five, behind then-Canadian record holder Sinead Russell.
Even though Caldwell had never made a senior national team before, she arrived in Montreal without any doubts in her abilities. The final morning of racing, after missing the team in the 100 by a single spot, she approached me before we got in for warm-up and said, “I know you think you are going to win this event tonight. But you aren’t going to beat me.”
She was completely serious, and although I was taken aback by my training partner’s boldness, I admired her attitude. She backed it up, getting her hand on the wall before me in the 200, solidifying her rightful place on the Canadian Olympic Team.
Caldwell was not able to repeat her trials performance, and did not swim past the preliminary round of the 200 backstroke at the Olympics. Fast forward one year: this morning, Caldwell smashed her personal best in the same event, completely skipping the 2:08 range, and set a new Canadian record of 2:07.81.
“When I saw my time this morning I had to read it a few times,” Caldwell told Swimming World. “I thought ‘nah that wasn’t me.’ It didn’t compute right away.”
Tonight in the semifinal, she lowered her new Canadian mark, earning the second seed for the final behind Missy Franklin; Caldwell even out split Franklin on the second and final 50 of the race. Granted, Franklin was still catching her breath after the 100 freestyle, and was likely waiting for tomorrow night to really light up lane four.
No doubt people were surprised when this little-known Canadian posted the second fastest time with a fairly comfortable lead over third-place Elizabeth Pelton. But Caldwell herself was not altogether surprised with this performance. She feels like this time drop was a long time coming.
“I had a pretty disappointing race at the Olympics in the morning and missed out on getting a chance to swim at night, so my best time was from a year and a half ago,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell also attributes the time drop to her training.
“I did a lot of work on aerobic backstroke this year and coming into the meet I have been training super well.”
Caldwell moved to train with Randy Bennett at the Victoria Academy of Swimming back in 2009, and slowly chipped away at her best time. When she first arrived in Victoria, she considered herself an IMer, but Bennett saw her backstroke potential. Caldwell has continued to drop time in her 200 backstroke for the past four years, and now people are being forced to take notice.
This steady improvement is no accident though: Caldwell swims alongside the likes of Olympic medalist Ryan Cochrane. When Ryan Cochrane does 10×400′s freestyle, Hilary is one lane over, doing the exact same set backstroke, with only 30 seconds added to her pace time.
When the freestylers are doing tough turn sets with multiple underwaters on short rest, Hilary is doing the exact same set, on the same interval, but backstroke. At this point, her 200 backstroke time is probably faster than her 200 freestyle time, because she will do entire practices backstroke, even warm-up and warm down. The only time she rolls onto her front is during the single stroke she takes into the turn.
Approaching Barcelona, Caldwell had two goals: break the Canadian record and qualify for the final. She has definitely overshot both, and now is reevaluating what she wants out of this meet.
“Heading into finals I want a medal. I think I can. After Missy the field is pretty open, so why not just go for it?”
A medal from Caldwell tomorrow would only be Canada’s second medal of these championships, and the first for the women’s team. That would be huge not just for Caldwell, but for the country.
Hilary Caldwell is a very hard worker in practice, and bows down to no one in a race, no matter their credentials. Although it may seem like she came out of nowhere, her performance in Barcelona–her second international competition and first-ever world championships–was the result of a well-executed plan.
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