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Tuesday, May. 21, 2019
Support and swimming were hand in hand for Jennifer Campbell-Michel
2019-05-11
by Randy Pascal

For the better part of a decade or so, covering a portion of both the seventies and eighties, athletes representing the Sudbury Laurentian Swim Club (SLSC) were not only garnering national attention, but also rising to prominence at international meets, world-wide.

Yes, that bevy of talent was headlined by Olympian Alex Baumann, the Opening Ceremony flagbearer for Canada in Los Angeles in 1984, who would go on to capture gold in both the 200m and 400m individual medley events, establishing new world records in both, while earning the country's first medal in the sport since 1912.

But the SLSC supporting cast, a group that included the likes of Darcy Wallingford, Michelle Gereghty and Rob Wallenius, could all easily lay claim to ranking within the top ten swimmers that northern Ontario has ever produced.

Earlier this month, their friend and teammate, Jennifer Campbell-Michel, would finally get her due, notified of her inclusion in the Class of 2019, one that will gain entry to the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame in June.

It's been a long time coming for the 53 year old local woman, tabbed for incredibly lofty goals before she had even celebrated double digit birthdays. "At nine years old, I set a 50-yard freestyle Canadian age group record," Campbell-Michel recalled recently.

"I remember the Nuggett writing an article about me and saying that Jen Campbell was a prospective Olympian. It stuck with me and that became my goal." While that kind of attention, at that age, has led to many a challenge for elite athletes over the years, Campbell-Michel was fortunate, immersed in a setting that provided an incredibly supportive perspective to her early swim pursuits.

"I remember the fun, the joy, and some goal setting, and lots of support, lots of family support, lots of coaching support," she said, reminiscing of her start, in Copper Cliff, with the Northern Ontario Aquatic Club.

"I was just happy to be swimming at that point. I had this goal, and I had lots of support, and I was young enough not to worry about anything else." That initial infrastructure featured coach Vicky Kett, for the first seven years, and a home-setting that she appreciates to this day.

Not only was her mother (Margaret) and younger brother (Robert) constantly in her corner, but her father, Robert, a local educator, would rise to prominence as a swim official and administrator, inducted into the Ontario Aquatic Hall of Fame in 2003 (Campbell-Michel was so honoured in 1996).

"All of my time in Copper Cliff is just kind of carefree and joyful," she said. "That was an idyllic time for me. They were special people that came into my life at the right time, people that kept me fresh, kept me motivated, and I was very close to home."

By the age of 15, Campbell-Michel was ready for the next phase of her career, taking a leap of faith, along with a handful of NOAC teammates, joining forces with an equally talented crew training at the Laurentian University pool.

Though there were some growing pains - more on that shortly - Campbell-Michel clearly hit the ground running, or hit the pool swimming, if such an analogy ever existed. "Just after joining Laurentian, I won seven gold medals at the Canada Summer Games in Thunder Bay. One of our women's relay teams was second fastest in the world at that point."

"That was the beginning of the next level, being on the national team and being with people that I looked up to: Nancy Garapick, Cheryl Gibson." Competing in Heidelberg (Germany) and Japan, at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane (Australia), and collecting no less than 13 gold medals from various Canadian Championships, Campbell-Michel was clearly a tour de force in the early 1980's.

Still, it wasn't easy. Dr Jeno Tihanyi, SLSC head coach at that time, was well-known with his approach as an ultra demanding task-master, one whose methods would not likely survive in our current atmosphere of political correctness in sport, these days.

Campbell-Michel acknowledged that her viewpoint surely softened over the years. "It was initially challenging," she said. "It was a different coaching style, a different environment, different expectations. Doc brought me up to the next level, and I appreciated that."

"I know he has a reputation, but when I look back on what he did for me, he was as dedicated and determined as we were. He was very talented at bringing the team together, holding it together. He was a highly regarded academic and tactician."

In fact, Campbell-Michel would go on to earn an athletic scholarship, moving just about as far south as she could when she joined the Louisiana State Tigers in Baton Rouge. "Denise (Gereghty) and I got invited to Arkansas, but then the coach switched to LSU," said Campbell-Michel.

"He drove up to Copper Cliff to speak to both sets of parents. We looked into the universities as best we could at that time - there was no internet. LSU seemed to have decent academics, and a full scholarship was kind of enticing. And the NCAA was enticing, to swim at that level."

"The NCAA was a good experience for me," she continued. "I finalled there, I won a medal at SECs, and I finished my degree (Science with Business Major), maintaining a 3.90 GPA." And what of the Olympic dreams of a nine year old?

Campbell-Michel would come tantalizing close, dealing with a shoulder injury, just as she prepared for the 1984 Olympic Trials. With the top two advancing, the local hopeful would place third in 200m individual medley, less than a second away from joining Baumann and the others in L.A.

Returning to Canada and earning a second degree, at Laurentian, all while starting her family (Campbell-Michel and her husband, Bruno, have two children, both girls), the graduate of Lo-Ellen Park Secondary would, thankfully, not grow bitter with her sport.

"I swam masters for about 25 years," she stated. "I think I actually have a joy of just being in the water." And in recognition of that joy, and a whole lot of natural talent and hard work, Jennifer Campbell-Michel will find herself forever celebrated, enshrined as a member of the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame.

The 2019 Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame Dinner is set for Wednesday, June 12th, at the Caruso Club, with tickets available at the House of Kin on Regent Street.

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