As a swimmer, Denise Gereghty (now Oakes) was something of a tweener: talented enough to show well on a national level, but not quite on par with the most acclaimed of her local teammates.
And truth be told, she is quite fine with that.
Where some might struggle with the challenges of in-club comparisons, the youngest of four children in the Copper Cliff born and raised family was seemingly always at ease in her own skin.
“To be quite honest, I wasn’t at the same level as Jennifer (Campbell) and Rob Wallenius and Alex Baumann,” said the mother of four equally athletic daughters. “I was very thankful when I had opportunities. I had friends at school that weren’t swimmers and they were always telling me how lucky we were.”
“Looking back, you realize that those free experiences are not easy to come by.”
Gereghty, who enjoyed a five-year swim scholarship sojourn at Louisiana State University (LSU) (she and Campbell both made their way to Baton Rouge following their graduation from high school), would be welcomed into an inviting setting, right from her start in the sport.
“Michelle (older sister and swimmer) and I were competing at some sort of town festival, taking part in some swim races when a coach approached my mom,” Gereghty recalled. The team in question was NOAC (Northern Ontario Aquatic Club), based out of the R.G. Dow Pool, literally a stone’s throw from the homestead that remained in the family until just recently.
“It was just fun,” she said. “It was something new for me, and I improved fairly quickly, which I think made it fun. It was a good group of kids, kids from Chelmsford, kids from my school. We would walk to the pool - I could run from my house to the pool in two minutes. It was amazing for a small town like Copper Cliff to have the facility that we did.”
When she was in grade eight, however, Gereghty would witness an amalgamation of local clubs, one which assembled all of the top Sudbury talent under one roof at Laurentian.
And while the NOAC high-schoolers, the likes of Jennifer Campbell and Liz Taus and her sister Michelle would immediately make the switch, Denise was delayed by one year, a victim of the simple logistics of trying to get halfway across town for after school practices while being part of a family with dual working parents.
“Everyone that had enough talent made the switch ahead of me, so there was no question I was heading in that direction,” said Gereghty. The gap year did allow the one remaining NOAC transferee to walk in, eyes wide open as she prepared for the tutelage of Dr Jeno Tihanyi. “We were warned about the little things, things to do or not to do.”
“If you were training in the butterfly, for instance, it wasn’t unusual to take a little break and do one arm (strokes). Well, you do not do one arm fly with Doc.” Still, timing is everything, and for Gereghty, her status as a candidate for junior nationals would find her working out with one of Doc’s assistants as she prepared for the first of what would become countless high-level meets.
And what a meet it was.
“I had an amazing improvement at junior nationals that year,” said Gereghty. “I remember coming back, seeing Doc on the deck and he gave me a giant kiss, a big hug and told me how proud he was. I knew that things would be OK.”
More than OK, actually.
By the end of her grade 10 year at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School, Gereghty was part of a Canadian swim contingent travelling to Japan. “All of a sudden, you’re experiencing something that you’ve never experienced before,” she reminisced. “I was fortunate to have a trip like that every year.”
“It was never the Olympics, it was never World Championships, but I honestly didn’t care. I loved the travelling, I loved representing Canada. I was a freestyler, so they always took four of us, just because they needed us for a relay. We might swim other events, but there were a few times that my main reason for going was to swim relays.”
“There were times where maybe we wished we could go for more than a relay, but to have that type of trip and still be there, to support your team and do something you love is pretty special.”
Tokyo may well have topped a listing of her favourite destinations, but the fact is Gereghty took in each and every outing with a mindset that appreciated the uniqueness that it offered. “Some of the trips that we would go on were games - University Games, Pan Am Games,” she said. “With those, we lived in a village with all of the other athletes - and that was a cool experience too.”
“You had the opportunity to go and see some of the other athletes and their events.”
The manner in which she filters the world around her appears to be ever-present, from one phase of Gereghty’s life to the next. Where some are overwhelmed by the pressures of NCAA competition, the northern Ontario freestyle specialist would strike just the right balance.
“I enjoyed my time in Louisiana,” said the current resident of Richmond Hill. “It’s obviously serious, needing to keep up your grades and showing up for every practice, but you’re also finding time to enjoy the football games and the bars. Being so close to New Orleans was fun too - they sure know how to party.”
Even the fact that Campbell and Gereghty would find themselves making the trek south to the Bayou did not represent a decision that was pondered over, stressfully, for hours on end. “There was no question that I would swim at the university level,” said Gereghty. “But I really wasn’t thinking in the U.S. - that kind of just fell in our laps.”
“We really just kind of decided to go on the recruiting trip to see how it would go and realized that it was pretty cool. It was not the route that we were thinking.”
With another generation of university athletes on hand - daughter Madison is a goalie with the Concordia Stingers with two younger sisters heading to Maine - it’s entirely likely that Denise Gereghty Oakes would love nothing more than to equip them with the same positive outlook that helped make her journey so memorable.
“I have no regrets,” she said. “I kept going because I enjoyed it.”