It was quite a weekend for the reigning Quebec Swimmer of the Year.
McGill’s Steven Bielby kicked it off by travelling to frigid Calgary to compete in the CIS championships. There, he qualified for two events at the 2011 World University Games in Shenzhen, China by winning two gold medals, one each in the 200 and 400 metre Individual Medley (IM). The two golds raise his career total to six, a McGill record.
Bielby took the hardware and ran, catching a flight straight out of Calgary to Vancouver, connecting from there to Sydney, Australia, where the third-year electrical Engineering major will spend the next semester, studying, and training at the University of Sydney. In August, Bielby will make the shorter jump to Shenzhen to represent both Canada and McGill on the world stage. The summer’s event could be a precursor of things to come, as Bielby’s looks towards London in 2012.
Bielby broke onto the university swimming scene back in 2009, when, in his freshman year at McGill, he won three gold medals at the year-end CIS championships. Since then, he hasn’t looked back, winning a gold, two silvers, and a bronze in 2010, and following that up with this past weekend’s double gold performance.
Though his results haven’t varied much, Bielby and his CIS competition have undergone drastic changes in the past three years.
The times they are a-changin’
In a 2009 interview with the Tribune, Bielby said of the CIS championships, “My main focus was on just one of the events, the 1500-metre freestyle … which I would say is my best event.”
This year, Head Coach Peter Carpenter said Bielby directed his energies primarily towards the two events he won. He didn’t even compete in the 1500m freestyle because it was right after the 200m IM and also partly because the presence of 2008 Olympic 1500m freestyle bronze medallist Ryan Cochrane represented a serious hit to Bielby’s chances of winning the event.
The two faced off in the 400m freestyle, which Cochrane won. But Bielby got his revenge in the 400m IM, beating out Cochrane by almost six seconds and finishing nearly a full four seconds ahead of second-place David Dimitrov of the University of Calgary. The bronze marked the only event Cochrane competed in that he didn’t win.
“To be honest, the 400 IM, I have no problem saying, was probably the greatest swim of [Bielby’s] life,” said Carpenter. “It’s not a best time but given the situation and the circumstances, that was probably the best swim he ever put together. And the fact that he won the race by four seconds shows total dominance.”
The “circumstances” to which Carpenter refer are, in addition to a pressure-packed championship-setting, 3500 feet of altitude and the accompanying lack of oxygen—a significant problem for one of the single most taxing aerobic sports. Despite this challenge, swimmers were setting record or near-record CIS paces.
“I think that really what we’re seeing, more than individual successes or failures, is the level of the CIS championships is going up significantly every year,” said Carpenter. “It seems like more and more kids are staying in Canada which is definitely something that we’re striving for.”
Despite the uptick in competitiveness, Bielby’s time in the 400 IM at CIS championships peaked in 2009 at 4:11.42. He regressed to 4:14.72 in 2010, and then won his latest gold with a time of 4:13.60.
For the average sports fan, swimming is a sport either known not at all, or for its three celebrities: Michael Phelps, of the bazillion gold medals and 10,000 calorie per day diet, Ian Thorpe (the Thorpedo), and the infamous Speedo LZR Racer Suit.
If you don’t remember, the LZR was at the centre of a broiling controversy in Beijing when swimmers wearing the suit demolished the record books.
Looking at Bielby’s times over the three-year span, it would be easy to disregard his progress. At first glance it appears that 2009 was a high watermark, maybe a fluke. But, consider the fact that 2009 was the last year the LZRs were permitted for competition and the numbers starts to make a lot more sense.
Some of Bielby’s other numbers are more difficult to understand, however.
“He is very … well yes, very short,” said Carpenter. “He’s 5’8″, which is incredibly short in the world of swimming. It’s almost comical. For the 200 IM walkout last night, you watch him walk out and he’s in the middle lane and you see one guy who’s 6’2″, one guy who’s 6’6″, one guy who’s 6’1″, Steven at 5’8″ and then another guy who’s 6′ and another guy who’s maybe 5’11”. It’s very funny to watch.”
Carpenter, along with the rest of McGill, and maybe Team Canada, has good reason to laugh, knowing that Bielby has some pretty good weekends in sight.