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200 metres to Beijing

by Archives April 8, 2008

While his teammates at the Pointe-Claire swimming club anxiously looked on the slow start, head coach Peter Carpenter wasn’t worried. He knew what was going to happen; it was only a question of when.
When Tobias Oriwol leaped from the starting line last Saturday at the CN swimming trials at Olympic Stadium, he knew he wasn’t going to lead from the beginning. But he did know an opportunity to grab pole position would present itself.
Above all, he knew the only way he had a chance of reaching the top two qualifying spots for this summer’s Olympic swim team was by keeping his composure.
Everything was against Oriwol on day five of the trials. The stress of qualifying for a first Olympic event after four misses alone was enough to choke on. And if that wasn’t sufficient he was racing against Matt Hawes of the University of British Columbia, Keith Beavers of the Waterloo swim club and Charles Francis of Cowansville, Quebec – the favourites to take the 200-metre backstroke race.
But Oriwol would not have any of it; he had worked too hard for too long to get distracted. At 22, the Olympics have been on his mind since the Atlanta games. To this day he still remembers when he began swimming at six years old. But mostly, he remembers sitting in the stands and asking for autographs when the trials came to the Big O in 1996.
“I was 11 at the time, with all my teammates and buddies. I think that’s when [the Olympics] became something realistic,” said Oriwol. “I felt the excitement [of the trials] and saw it happening [for me]. I knew then for sure.”
Since that year he hasn’t stopped training. 2008 was his third attempt to reach the Olympics. Oriwol’s first time came at 14 for the Millennium Games in Sydney, Australia. In 2004, he missed the Athens games again, but narrowly.
Instead of giving up before he even reached the average Canadian swimmer age of 22, he continued to push his limits.
“I usually train with him a couple of times a week at [the Olympic Stadium],” said teammate Tim Ruse. “And he just works hard every practice; he’s always the last one to leave. When you go in a race against him you know how hard he’s working. And you really respect how hard he’s trying to make it [to the Olympics].”
Sixteen years of training boiled down to this race. During the first lap he was cunning, keeping his energy for the last drive when most swimmers would begin to get tired. At 15 meters from the finish line, Francis dominated the event. However Francis was quickly overtaken by Oriwol as he began losing gas – he would finish third. UBC’s Hawes wasn’t having a stellar performance and finished fourth.
It came down to two. Beavers had been sitting in second the entire race and was now rewarded with the lead. But Oriwol was quickly catching up with just a few metres to go.
Coach Carpenter stood by the side gripping his itinerary. As soon as the wall was touched he, along with the rest of the packed stadium turned to the big screen, and saw Beavers’ time – 1 min 59.42 – 14 tenths less than Tobias Oriwol’s personal best, 1:59:66. The crowd erupted into cheer. Oriwol came in a close second and guaranteed a spot for Beijing.
“I think he swam [the race] perfectly, in the way he intended,” said coach Carpenter. “He was in a tough race with tough customers and he did what he had to do to get second.
“A lot of memories [came to me as Oriwol finished second], I coached Tobias for four years when he was 10,” added coach Carpenter. “I’m so happy for him. It’s amazing for me to see all the hard work he’s put in over 15 years come true.”
In top-level races like this, focus is the only thing separating the contestants. Whoever can keep it together the longest will win. Except focusing can suddenly become the hardest thing the world when facing Olympic pressure.
The smallest details are the most difficult to remember and they do make the difference between finishing first or last. Especially in a technical sport such as swimming where every fraction of a second is counted.
“The mental aspect is a huge part [of swimming],” said Oriwol. “I try to focus on myself as much as possible. I write key words on my hands to think about during the race so when I do get distracted, I try and block that out.
“Today I had straight written on my hand, because the ceiling is crooked here, so you unconsciously follow the line and people tend to hit the lanes which can cost you a valuable few tenths of a second,” he said. “After that I wrote tempo, keep things light and pinkie, so I think about putting my pinkie in the water first.”
But more importantly Oriwol trusted himself to come through.
“I’m not a very muscular guy; so I don’t have a lot of speed going out. My strategy in the 200 is usually to take it controlled within reach of the first guys, then on the second half to really pick it up,” explained Oriwol. “That’s when I can usually move on people. I think I did that pretty well. That’s when [opponents] tend to fall off and go a little slower . . . I know how they [opponents] like to swim, so when they start off really fast I don’t feel anxious. I know my strategy and I know theirs and I have to stick to that.”

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