Olympic Spot in Hand, Markus Thormeyer Chasing More at Canadian Trials

Markus Thormeyer (photo: Mike Lewis)
Markus Thormeyer; Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS / ISL

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Olympic Spot in Hand, Markus Thormeyer Chasing More at Canadian Trials

The COVID-19 pandemic left Markus Thormeyer out of the water for four months last year. From March through the end of July, through a postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Thormeyer was unable to train. Instead, he and the other swimmers at Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre at the University of British Columbia were left to train outdoors, cobbling together socially distant dryland workouts for several months.

Those sessions didn’t just fill a void of physical activity. It also helped make up for the isolation of the moment. Already engaged in the inherently isolating quest to qualify for an Olympics, which Thormeyer gently points out isn’t easy when there’s isn’t the shroud of a world-shuttering pandemic, the camaraderie at UBC was a vital survival mechanism through the darkest months.

Markus Thormeyer

Markus Thormeyer; Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS / ISL

“I think being close with your teammates is always important,” Thormeyer told Swimming World recently. “Pandemic aside, I think we’ve all been there for each other all the time. I feel like when that happens, the group is just better, so we already have this relationship of we’re super close. When the pandemic hit, it was a support system. I definitely couldn’t do it alone, and probably they feel the same in that we’re all relying on each other. It’s like a little web of support, and we’re all super grateful.”

A year after swimming and everything else came to a crashing halt, Thormeyer feels good about his standing as Tokyo belatedly approaches. He was provisionally selected in January to the Olympic squad in the 200 backstroke, the only men’s swimmer in Canada’s early contingent and the flagbearer for the program. It offers a modicum of peace of mind ahead to the now twice-delayed Canadian Trials (Thormeyer spoke to Swimming World before last week’s latest postponement of Trials to June).

Though Thormeyer hasn’t raced long-course since before the pandemic, he’s not worried about form. The International Swimming League season last fall helps, but so does the support system he’s embedded with in British Columbia, a group of swimmers that have tackled the pandemic together.

“I’m confident,” he said. “I’m not freaking out about having not raced long-course in over a year now, but I’m curious what’s going to happen. … That time off feels pretty irrelevant. I’ve improved beyond where I was last year.”

A Friend for the End of Normal

Markus Thormeyer has spent most of the pandemic at UBC. In addition to Swimming Canada’s facilities, the Delta, B.C., native has availed himself of the school’s natural setting: With the campus perched on the Strait of Georgia, beach days were a common lockdown respite.

The training group as a whole is close, Thormeyer said. But he’s particularly bonded to roommate Emily Overholt. Both 23 and BC natives, they’ve known each other for years. Their connection is so close that Thormeyer struggles to put into words the feeling of security and freedom to be his usual gregarious self around Overholt.

Their journey together has lasted for years, not just to major international meets but through significant life events away from the pool, from Overholt’s public battle with depression to Thormeyer’s coming out as gay in 2020.

“We’ve been there for each other’s highs, and we’ve been there for each other’s lows,” he said. “Knowing that someone like that is there for you, that you have a very strong relationship with, you feel secure with them. You have a stable relationship that, on my bad days, I know that she’s there for me. On my good days, I know that she’ll celebrate with me, and the other way around.”

That last event came at an interestingly timed juncture. Thormeyer penned an essay for OutSports in February 2020 about coming out as gay and what that process has meant for him as a swimmer. Putting his thoughts into words was a long process, something he started and stopped several times over a couple of years.

He didn’t think much of it when he finally hit send and didn’t attach expectations to how it would be received. Even now, he self-effacingly credits much of the response to people being bored online during the pandemic. But he’s been encouraged by the response, not in the larger sense of social media shares and readership but in the granular and personal interactions it’s led to.

“I just wanted to write something that I’m proud of and hopefully one person would read it and be inspired by it,” he said. “So I kind of just submitted and didn’t really think about it and moved on. And then all that stuff happened with the pandemic (in March) and my story got picked up and spread around a little bit, which was really nice. I got a lot of messages of, ‘thank you for sharing your story; you’ve inspired me,’ or, ‘I’m going through a tough time and that really helped.’ I think me doing that gave an element of LGBT representation in swimming and sport, and I realize now that’s such a big thing.”

Thormeyer says he didn’t feel discriminated against or targeted for his sexuality growing up. But he hopes the essay can go further than the absence of discrimination for LGBTQ representation. Instead of a masculine swimming culture defaulting to an assumption that every swimmer is straight, telling his story offers others a different role model for people who don’t see themselves in that archetype. And, as he says, if it has helped just one person, it would be worth confronting the fear of being an out athlete.

“There also needs to be swimmers who are expressing this and who young people can look up to and say, oh wow that swimmer is an international-level gay swimmer; maybe I can be that too,’” he said. “It’s not just straight people in sport. It’s literally anyone. I think being a role model and inspiring other young, gay swimmers to swim, and they don’t even have to be international level. But if they swim and are out and proud of who they are, I’m hoping those swimmers can also inspire other people to be who they are.”

To Budapest and Beyond

For all the training disruptions in Canada, the ISL season was an oasis for Markus Thormeyer.

First and foremost was safety. Where a positive test would send everyone in the training group home for a week of quarantine in Canada, testing was constant in the Budapest bubble. It gave Thormeyer the equanimity to know he was in a virus-free environment.

Olympic Trials-heats-9apr2016. Photo Scott Grant

Markus Thormeyer; Photo Courtesy: Scott Grant/Swimming Canada

The full-time immersion in a swimming-focused setting also helped reignite Thormeyer for the stretch run to Tokyo. He settled in well with the expansion Tokyo Frog Kings, which made the semifinals in their first season.

Thormeyer posted the ninth-fastest time in the 200 back in the league and was in the top 25 in three other events. He also lowered the Canadian record in that event. Perhaps most enlightening for Thormeyer was swimming alongside three-time Olympic medalist Ryosuke Irie every day, training with someone he hopes to occupy the Olympic final with in Tokyo.

“I always looked up to him, so training with him, I was like, ‘oh I’m actually kind of keeping up on some stuff,’ even sometimes at full speed,” Thormeyer said. “I had this complete image in my mind of him being an absolute god, and then to be there and be like, ‘oh I can actually do this too, I’m not too far back.’”

Despite his ticket to Tokyo, Thormeyer said his approach to Trials won’t change. He’s the leading men’s swimmer in the Canadian program, one that has promising young talents but is a clear second fiddle to the ascendent women’s program. (Hence the five women added to the Tokyo roster and Thormeyer as the lone man.)

While Thormeyer’s place is set in the 200 back, he’s after bigger fish. He could make the Games in the 100 back and 200 freestyle. That would put him in contention for two men’s relays, and barring a sudden surge of sprinters, he’ll likely earn a place on the 400 free foursome. (An 18-year-old Thormeyer made the 400 free relay in Rio for his Olympic debut).

Thormeyer swam three individual events and four relays at the 2019 World Championships and nabbed a bronze medal in the mixed 400 free relay at 2017 Worlds. His specialties make him a candidate all over the board.

Part of his mentality for Trials, should they happen, is to go into them with a mentality befitting such a dominant swimmer.

“It’s nice to have a spot on the team,” he said. “It doesn’t really change it. I’m going to Trials to swim fast, and I need to qualify for more events. Olympic Trials is still Olympic Trials to me.”