For The Morning Star
TORONTO – One is a 15-year-old just getting started in competitive para-swimming. The other is now entering her prime in the sport.
But for both Riley McLean and Sarah Mehain, the main objective at the Parapan Am Games was the same – to take home some special memories.
And on that count it was mission accomplished for both Vernon athletes.
For 20-year-old Mehain, there was the added bonus of a lot extra hardware to put in her bags – a gold and three silver medals.
“I’m really happy to be able to come in and be competitive among the top racers and most importantly be able to work on technical changes that I wanted and be able to get good times in the pool,” said the Seaton Secondary School grad, who set a Parapan Am Games record in the 50 metre butterfly in capturing the gold in 37.07 seconds.
Her silvers came in the 100 freestyle, 100 backstroke and 50 freestyle. She also finished fourth in the 100 breaststroke and fifth in the 200 individual medley.
The 50 free final was her first swim of the competition, and she said apart from the silver, her first dip into the pool gave her a memory she’ll never forget.
“I wasn’t expecting have so many people cheering,” said Mehain, who has a congenital condition called hemiplegia that causes the left side of her body to be weaker and less coordinated than the other, putting her in the S7 category, with the range of disability ranked one through 10, and the lower the number, the more significant the disability.
“It’s funny because you hear them call out each name in the block. And you hear them say somebody from somewhere, and then you hear them say ‘Sarah Mehain from Canada’ and you hear the whole crowd cheering a lot louder.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever had that crowd on home soil so it’s really exciting, a good experience. Having the Games in Canada is just the best feeling.”
James Hood, Canada’s team leader in para-swimming, said that Mehain – who also won a bronze medal in July at the world championships in Glasgow – had “learned a ton about herself” this summer.
“She’s learning to race and realize she can be on the world stage,” said Hood. “Certainly her performances in Glasgow showed that, but also learning how to race not only when you’re alone in front of the field but also when you’re having to come from behind. Her gold medal is a true indication of how well she can actually do. And now it’s convincing herself and learning how to train through what she used to think were her barriers or limits of training to be able to make the next step as we look towards Rio (Paralympics) in 2016.”
As for McLean, who competes in the S4 category, he swam in three events, finishing fourth in the 100 free, fifth in the 50 free, and fifth in the 50 backstroke. But each time he raced, whether in a morning preliminary or final, he set a new personal best.
“I’ve been so excited for these races for a few months now,” said the Seaton student, who began swimming two years ago, despite the congenital condition arthrogryposis that restricts the use of all of the joints in his body, with the exception of his hips and spinal column. “Right when my coach said I made the Parapan Am Games I was so pumped for my races and I was so excited. All the adrenaline helped me get personal bests. All the people cheering for me just made me feel really good and that I could do really good races.”
Hood said McLean – who will compete at the tryouts for the Rio Paralympic team in April – has a bright future in front of him.
“He’s relatively new in the sport, still learning and training hard, and still with the kind of potential for growth and development, and actual improvement in times. So that’s really what we’re looking at. We talk about our next generation. It would be great to see him in Rio but he’s really one of the athletes that we look at as we target towards 2020 in Tokyo.”
Beyond their achievements in the pool, both athletes marvelled at the thrill of being able to represent Canada at home and to be part of the Canadian team in general.
“When we got here and we walked into the village, I think the whole team just all of a sudden felt this excitement because it’s in Canada,” said Mehain. “First of all, all the volunteers were really excited to see us arrive, the Canadian team. The atmosphere in the village and at the competition venue is amazing. With para-sport you often don’t get as much recognition or media as able-body and we were all blown away by the coverage and the attention and just the recognition that we were getting as para-athletes.
“Myself, I’ve never seen this before, this much excitement surrounding para-sport and having just regular people in the airport or on the street knowing where you’re going and knowing what para-sport is. It’s really exciting. I think it’s a huge step forward.”
McLean said that he was overwhelmed by the athletes’ village.
“I was expecting maybe two or three buildings. But the village is huge. It’s the best swimming event I have been to so far and it’s something I will probably never forget,” he said.
Both Mehain and McLean are now back in Vernon. Mehain will only be in town for about a week before she returns to McGill University in Montreal where she is an Arts & Science student. She’ll be training intensively while there as she looks ahead to the Rio Games and the possibility of reaching the podium on para-sport’s biggest stage.
“I think it’s looking really good going forward. I’m going to get back in the pool in a few weeks and hopefully apply what I’ve learned this summer.”