Focus shifts from pool to school after experience of a lifetime
By Jim Hynes
Valérie Grand’Maison is having a bit of a hard time adjusting to real life again. And who could blame her? Four weeks ago the McGill psychology and history senior was in London, captaining the Canadian swim team at the Paralympics and winning three medals to boot. Now she’s back home and hitting the books, heading for a finish line of another kind.
Although it feels to her as if she just stepped off the podium, the 24-year-old Fleurimont, Que. native and former member of the Martlets swim team has already had to write a mid-term.
“I’m just coming back to reality now. It’s hard, to be honest,” she laughs. “I’m back in school and it’s just going so fast already. And I’m graduating this year so I’m starting to look at what I want to do after. It’s exciting too. I’m excited to move on from swimming and looking towards my professional life and what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
McGill’s only Paralympian, Grand’Maison is visually impaired. She’s suffered from macular degeneration since age 12, first in one eye, then, at age 15, in the other. The condition, she says, has left her with 10 per cent vision in one eye and only five per cent in the other.
“But it’s not that simple, Grand’Maison says, “I see better on the periphery, not so well in the middle. And I don’t have any depth perception whatsoever. I don’t see details – everything is blurry. But eventually, if I get up close enough to something, I can see it.”
When she was first diagnosed, doctors suggested Grand’Maison stop competitive swimming altogether.
“They told me any strenuous physical effort could decrease my vision. But again, they don’t know a lot about this disease, because it’s very rare that it happens to people under the age of 55. So they struggled with how to treat a 12-year-old.”
Back in the swim of things
After a short break, Grand’Maison returned to the pool, eventually competing in the Quebec Games in 2005 before becoming Canada’s most decorated athlete at the 2006 IPC World Swimming Championships in Durban, South Africa, where she collected five gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal. Two years later, at the age of 20, she made her biggest splash of all, leading all Canadians with three gold medals, a pair of silvers and one bronze at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
After recovering from a shoulder injury that sidelined her for much of 2010, the Town of Mount Royal resident headed to the London Paralympics with great expectations, most of which she lived up to despite a bumpy start. After winning silver medals in the women’s S13 50-metre and 100-metre freestyle, Grand’Maison followed up with a gold a few days later in the 200-metre individual medley in a world-record time of two minutes, 27.64 seconds.
The joy of winning gold helped Grand’Maison, who swam in four events in London, overcome the frustration and disappointment she felt after coming in second her first two races.
“I had higher expectations,” she says. “After my first silver I was pretty happy because it was the first medal and it’s really exciting just to break the ice. But the second race was the 100 free and I had won that in Beijing and I hold the world record, so I was expecting to win. But the race plan went so badly. I got overwhelmed and worked too hard in the first half of the race. I made rookie mistakes basically.
“I took some time to be upset after the race, but as soon as I was on the podium and then debriefing with my coach, I was fine. I think it gave me the determination and will to do better in my next races. I had made the mistake of being too excited and wanting it too badly. I knew from my last two races that I had to take control and do what I do. I’ve done these races hundreds of times in my life, so I know the drill. So it was just about having fun and enjoying it all and doing what I do best and not overthinking. Because that’s what athletes do best…we overthink everything. And that’s when things start to go badly. I tried to just shut my brain off and enjoy the experience.”
Looking back at London
Today, Grand’Maison looks back at London as a fantastic experience, even topping her time in Beijing.
“I didn’t win as many medals as Beijing, but on a personal level, it was a way better experience. I was team captain for the Canadian swim team so that was so much fun,” she says. “It was great to be part of a team like that, and to make a difference in other people’s experience at the Games. Swimming is such an individual sport, it’s so nice to feel like you’re a part of something bigger. I had so much fun with everyone and so much fun racing, and the Brits were so nice. I met a lot of people, a lot of volunteers. The entire experience was just more enjoyable.”
A member of the Martlets swim team from 2008 to 2012, Grand’Maison hasn’t so much as dipped a big toe into the pool since she got back from London, and she has no plans to either. She’s hanging up her bathing cap and goggles, at least for now.
“I don’t know if I’m done with swimming forever, but I’m done for now. I’m going to take a break. I’m still physically and emotionally exhausted and I need to focus on what I’m going to do next year, says Grand’Maison, who has started applying to medical schools. “I don’t know,” she says of retiring from the pool. “It’s been defining me for the last 15 years, and not to have it would be really weird and there would be a big void in my life. But at the same time I feel that I have to move on.”
So what does a lifelong swimmer do with her time when there are no more break of dawn practices to attend?
“I wish I had a good answer for that, but I really don’t have a life,” Grand’Maison says with a laugh. “I love spending time with my friends. I still love working out, doing yoga. I run a lot and lift weights. I’ve even taken up ballet this semester. I’m doing all sorts of things. I guess I like to keep moving.”