Moving to a new block

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by Cheryl Gibson

Winning a silver medal in the 400m individual medley at the 1976 Montreal Olympics was, by far, the most exciting moment of my life.

But once the Games were over, I had to reset my swimming goals. Doing this wasn’t easy. Coaches were looking ahead to 1978 and the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton and the World Aquatic Championships in Berlin, and I wasn’t ready to get right back into heavy training and commit myself to swimming for another two years.

Eventually, I decided to make a swimming scholarship one of my major goals after graduating from high school in 1977. A swimming scholarship made sense because I felt I needed a change from going to the same meets and competing with the same people for three years. A university program offered a new meet schedule and a chance to meet other swimmers.

Anyone who has ever been recruited by an American university knows it can be a pain in the . . . neck!

The mail carrier gets upset because your recruiting letters add 10 pounds to his bag. Your family gets upset because you tie up the phone talking to prospective coaches. And you get upset because you can’t decide which university is the best choice.

After many headaches and much confusion, I signed a letter of intent — a piece of paper committing me to a particular school— with Arizona State University.

There are lots of reasons why I chose ASU. One was the number of Canadian swimmers already on their team. I had swum with all of them at one time or another and thought it would help to know some people when I arrived, not wanting to be lost amongst the 36,000 students at ASU. The university also took its swimming program very seriously and continued training after nationals were finished in late March.

Another reason was the swim team itself, which has many world ranked athletes. This meant top competition at every workout. Besides, I liked the coaches. They showed an interest in my swimming career, not only for their school, but for Canada as well.

The idea of swimming outdoors in the sun and fresh air of Arizona was appealing after years of pools with dim lighting and stagnant air. And finally, they offered me a full scholarship, which includes tuition, fees, and room and board.

Even after signing with ASU, I was still thinking about going to a Canadian university. For one thing, I’d heard rumours that the level of Women’s college swimming in the USA wasn’t competitive. I had also heard that Canadian swimmers going to the States wouldn’t be eligible for the Commonwealth Games team or any Canadian tour teams. If these rumours had been true, I would not have left Canada.

Still feeling confused, I suddenly found myself sitting in a dormitory room with air conditioning blowing on my neck, thinking I could at least give the whole thing a try.

Classes began and I actually enjoyed them. Workouts started and, before I knew it, it was time for our first dual meet with our arch rivals, the University of Arizona. That’s when I first discovered what team spirit is all about.

What cheering and screaming! Whenever a swimmer stood up on the blocks, the team really let you know they were with you. You got so psyched up by the excitement. To swim well was important, not just for personal satisfaction, but also because it mattered to the team.

In Canada, everything revolves around the club system. Individual penformance seems more important, with each club relying on its top athletes for points. In the American university system, it’s the team that matters most, with every team member having her own part to play. I suppose the pressure is less personal and that makes it easier to cope with.

I wanted to remain involved in the Canadian swim scene, so I joined the Canadian team for the NOC meet in East Berlin in December (Champion, Volume 2, Number 1). It was a good chance to see how the Europeans were swimming.

In February, I went to the Australian Nationals in Brisbane, along with Nancy Garapick, Robin Corsiglia, Wendy Quirk, and Christine Hodson. The five of us had a sneak preview of the Australians before the Commonwealth Games (see page 6). As well as swimming, we took advantage of the last days of Aussie summer to “catch a few rays”, partake of some surfing and sailing, and peeling. None of us wanted to leave but I, at least, could look foward to sunny Arizona; as for the rest of the Canucks . . . brrrrr.

Shortly after I got back from Australia, ASU’s women’s squad went to the national championships at Durham, North Carolina, home of Duke University. I’ve never been to a meet filled with as much cheering, yelling, screaming, and general exuberance. Our team became closer than at any time previously.

After three days of wins, losses, cheers, and tears, ASU won its eighth AIAW National Championship in a close battle with the University of Florida. All in all, the event was a unique experience for me.

Now I’m looking forward to the Commonwealth Games and World Championships, which, two years ago, seemed light-years away. It only goes to show — “time flies when you’re having fun”.

Eighteen year old Cheryl Gibson of Edmonton, is the Commonwealth and Canadian record holder in 400m individual medley.

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