The revamping of the OUA Divisional Swim Championships has created a highly forthright approach in the mind of Laurentian University head swim coach Phil Parker, with the 2018 competition only days away.
“We want to win both the men's and women's events,” said Parker, deck-side at the Jeno Tihanyi Olympic Pool at L.U., the same venue that will serve as host to the deBray Championships this coming weekend.
A few years back, the OUA essentially instituted a tiered promotion/relegation format, with seven teams this year vying for a chance to advance to face the big dogs in the Ontario university swimming ranks, a few months prior to the OUA championships in February.
“We want to beat Guelph,” Parker stated. “It's going to be tough to beat them on both the men's and women's side. They are stacked in some events, we are stacked in some events. They're strong in breaststroke and fly, we're strong in the back and freestyle. It's going to be really good.”
Parker enters this season, his 17th with the Voyageur swim crew, with the same enthusiasm he has consistently displayed, making no bones about the motivation behind the quest for an aggregate championship banner.
“We want to move up to get a taste of that, see what life is like up there,” he said. “Every race, kids will be putting it on the line, just to get from 15th to 13th, or from 7th to 5th. That's exciting to see from a team standpoint.”
One year ago, Laurentian was edged out in the race for the crown by the Waterloo Warriors. With that foe having advanced to battle it out at the Fairweather Divisional Championships with the likes of the University of Toronto, Western and McMaster, the Voyageurs must topple a remaining sextet that includes Guelph, Queen's, Brock, York, Laurier and Carleton.
What Parker needs, as much as anything else, is a continued show of progress from his experienced swimmers that have now grown accustomed to the rigours of OUA racing. A third year architecture student from the Newmarket area, Gabriel Fenn is miles ahead of where he stood, as a freshman, back in the fall of 2016, the last time Laurentian hosted this competition.
“I had no sense of time management in first year,” he said. “I was a mess. Things are a lot better now. Things are still stressful, but I can manage it, I feel. In first year, even though I swam kind of well, I missed a lot of practices and stuff, so I could have done better. Second year got a little better, and this year is a lot better.”
“I am definitely stronger, I worked out a lot over the summer,” Fenn added. “I work on other things – stretching outside of the pool, balancing my meals correctly, stuff like that – which in first year, I never really cared about.”
A distance swimmer for the better part of his competitive days with the Newmarket Stingrays, Fenn has altered his approach as he tackles the final half of his post-secondary swimming career. “Last year, I was 1500's, and now I'm moving more to sprints,” he said. “I'm somewhere between 400m and 50m.”
“I've been doing distance all my life, so I thought I would kind of switch it up in my last two years, see how I would do in sprinting. There's a lot of things that you can learn from both distances, both in the training and in the races. They are two very different environments.”
Twenty year old third year Concurrent Education major (with Sports Psychology) Erika Savage can relate to dealing with change in the pool. After bouncing around with a handful of different clubs in her youth in the GTA, the Scarborough native backed away from competitive swimming for most of her years through high school.
“I had so many different coaches and they all had so many different coaching styles that it kind of messed with my head a little bit,” she said. “It got confusing about what swimming meant to me. I had always swam because I loved to swim.” Ironically, there was a little doubt, in her mind, that she would eventually make her way back.
“I always knew that I wanted to swim varsity,” said Savage. “Varsity swimming is much different than club (youth) swimming. I can remember doing camps, at universities, when I was little and thinking how it was so cool, how I wanted to do that some day.”
Her re-integration into the fold would not come easy, at least not initially. “The first year (at LU) was difficult, mentally,” she said. “I needed to lose weight, I needed to get back into shape. There was a lot of comparison going on. That was the biggest struggle.”
“By the end of that year, I was doing times that I had been doing before, so I was pleased with that. By second year, I was making personal bests, getting up there on the charts, so that was exciting.” The connection between Savage and Parker was working out even better than she could have hoped.
“Phil is just fantastic, so easy to talk to,” she noted. “You can come to him and say, “Phil, this is my problem, I want this fixed. How do I fix it? I want this goal. How do I achieve it?” And he will straight up say, “this is what you have to do.” It's great. He's just an awesome guy.”
By the end of the weekend, however, Phil Parker would love to be an awesome guy sporting a spiffy new divisional banner. That is the goal, make no mistake about it.