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The unexpected link that connects northern Ontario to Nebraska
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"Honestly, I didn't really know where Nebraska was until I looked at the map of the United States".

No worries, Jeremi Aubin - there is honestly not much that typically connects northern Ontario with the land of the Cornhuskers.

But in this year where very little is as usual, Midland University in Freemont, Nebraska (population 26,397) is as good a landing spot as any for the talented young local swimmer.

A grade 12 student at College Notre-Dame, Aubin confirmed his intentions last month to accept a scholarship offer to join the Midland Warriors of the NAIA, competing in the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

This certainly was not the projected final destination when Aubin first entered the pool setting at the age of five.

"I remember taking lessons at Nickel District (Pool) and I remember always failing and failing," he said with a laugh. "I stopped for a few years, but when I turned nine, I think I was watching the Olympics on TV, watching Michael Phelps and practicing the butterfly."

The re-launch, it turns out, was exactly what the doctor ordered for the youngest of two children in the family (sister Josee is three years older).

It was a very different Jeremi Aubin that would join the Sudbury Laurentian Swim Club (SLSC) seven to eight years ago.

"When I came back, the competitive nature within me just switched on," he said. "Maybe it was because it was a competitive sport and going to the Laurentian pool, the 50 metre pool."

"It just felt different, and I've loved it ever since."

Topping out at 5'9", Aubin explored the full gammut of four strokes to eventually find his way to a skill-set that could attract post-secondary consideration.

"I was pretty well rounded, well except for the breaststroke - that was not my strong suit," he suggested. "Maybe a bit more of a backstroker when I was younger. I'm not exactly sure how. I was this little 4'8" kid that could backstroke."

"When I turned 13, my fly (butterfly) started to get much better. I realized how to catch the water and pull my body weight through the water."

This is also when Aubin recalls his first major breakthrough, that moment when swimming beyond high-school at very least enters the conversation.

"It was at an A/B meet, the last meet to qualify for provincials," the young man reminisced. "I was doing the 200m fly and I really wasn't very confident - I may have been sick or something."

"I ended up qualifying for provincials and then made nationals - and things just snowballed from there. I think it was going to my first provincials that I first thought: winning feels good."

"If it wasn't for qualifying for provincials, I wouldn't be where I am right now," added Aubin. "I'm so happy that I let my coaches push me so that I could better myself."

In fact, support has come from a variety of sources, in a variety of different ways over the years.

From coach Connor Watson, deckside when Aubin was just hitting his teens, to current mentor Dean Henze, head coach at SLSC, the local recruit has forged meaningful relationships. "Whenever I think of Dean, I think of his passion for the sport, how he loves to train us hard," said Aubin.

"We would do a huge set, the IM Cruncher, 2000 metres per stroke, at least a few times a year. He would always get us fatigued, just before tapering - and then would let us know when we were working hard."

"Getting the thumbs up from Dean is the best."

The past 12 months have provided precious few opportunities for thumbs up - or high fives or any contact at all, for that matter. If not for the support system, the end result could have been much worse.

"I was pretty upset, but there's not much that we could really do," said Aubin, who missed out on one cancelled competition after another, key moments to showcase his skills to potential school suitors.

"I wanted to better myself as a swimmer, but we really couldn't do that. And then with everything going on at L.U. and varsity swim team being cut, it's taken a toll on everyone's mental state."

"I thought I should take some initiative and use all of this extra time to workout, so I started lifting weights with (teammate) Jordano Piccoli. We trained to better our pulls, to better our kicks."

"That was the first positive signs during COVID-19."

Actually, there was one other ray of hope, a beacon of light from a foreign land.

"The coach from Midland (Ryan Bubb) reached out to me a full year ago," suggested Aubin. "He would text me every week or two, keeping in touch. I think that's where Midland University really captured my attention."

And given his somewhat limited knowledge of the American midwest - kindly reference the opening statement of the story - Aubin sought out a former teammate, now midway through a highly successful NCAA swim career with the Florida State University Seminoles.

"Whenever I had any questions at all, she (Nina Kucheran) would always be there for me," he said. "She wanted me to make sure that academics were a priority. But know why you're there - swimming is a passion."

Throw in the backing of his parents, who really helped with the decision, stressing the potential of an adventure of a lifetime, and Aubin was sold. The excitement in his voice was palpable as he shared the knowledge that his initial residence roomate would bes a Californian swimmer.

"It will be so nice to engage with other student athletes," he said. "I've always wanted to live in a country town - and I think I will love the heat; might even come back a little more tanned."

Even the travel plans have come together nicely.

"My grandfather has an RV, so the family and I are taking the RV down to Nebraska in mid-August," said Aubin. "We're going to spend a few nights in Chicago, make it an adventure."

Safe to say that Jeremi Aubin will have a far better sense of exactly what lies between Sudbury and Nebraska by the time that he graduates than he did roughly twelve months ago.

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