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Former Neptunes swimmer sets sights on Rio Paralympics

IPC Worlds bronze medal winner and Parapan Am four medal winner Sarah Mehain getting ready for qualifiers.
Mehain competed at the 2012 London Paralympic Games and reached the final in four of her six events.

Nelson Neptune alumna Sarah Mehain, 20, has good reason to feel confident as she prepares to qualify for the 2016 Rio Paralympics at the Canadian Toronto Olympic and para trials in March.

Winner of a bronze medal at the 2015 IPC Swimming World Championships in Glasgow this July, she went on to win four medals at the 2015 Parapan Am Games in Toronto in August — a gold in the S7 50 butterfly and three silvers. (Categories are ranked S2 to S14 with S2 as the highest level of disability.)

While a gold or silver medal in Glasgow would have guaranteed Mehain a spot at Rio, her bronze medal time of 36.98 seconds was still a full 5.53 seconds faster than the IPC minimum qualification standards.

Mehain will have to qualify in a minimum time of 42.51 in her S7 50m breast stoke and 3:40.07 for the 200m IM (individual medley). These are just two of her favourite races and she hopes to qualify for more.

After a brief break, Mehain is back in Montreal where she studies sustainability and society at McGill University.

She will continue to train with the McGill varsity team and coach Peter Carpenter. As a full-time university student and an Paralympic contender, her life has been cut down to two intense activities: a lot of swimming and school work, with little time for her other hobbies such as playing the violin, French horn or horseback riding.

Since birth, Mehain has had a congenital condition called hemiplegia, which means that one side (in her case the right side) of her body is weaker and less coordinated than the other.

Swimming since she was three, she has trained hard and as a result is strong for her 5’3” frame.

She raced with the Nelson Neptunes before her family moved to Vernon when she was 12. She was thrilled to hear of the team’s recent performance at provincials.

Former Nelson Neptunes swimmer Sarah Mehain is training for the qualifiers for the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Chances are good for the bronze medal winner at the 2015 IPC World Championship Glasgow and four medal winner at 2012 Parapan Am Toronto. SM | Canadian Paralympic committee photo

While she is known for competing in a wide range of events — as many as six when she qualifies, she has two favourites: the 50 m butterfly which she swims with one arm as her right arm stays by her side, and the 200 IM. And how she approaches the two events are completely different as one is a sprint and the other a technical battle of endurance.

Her 50m race strategy sounds simple at first: “sprint” she said. But as she describes how she approaches the race, it sounds anything but effortless.

“From the second you dive off the blocks to the time you touch the walls, you are thinking to go all out, sprinting the entire time — really working on getting a high stroke rate, holding water and getting there as fast as possible,” she said.

She doesn’t mention she’s swimming the butterfly with one arm resting at her side.

Mehain explains  swimmers with disabilities on one side of their body will use the opposite side as it can help improve their coordination and get their stroke rate up.

In each classification there are a wide variety of disabilities.

“The classification is not determined by what kind of disability you have but more what level of ability you have in the water,” she said.

Her strategy changes for the 200 IM which is quite a bit longer with only 50m of each stroke.

“It’s a really technical race,” said Mehain.  “You have to plan to have enough endurance for a 200 and yet you also have to plan to sprint each stroke because you only have 50m in each stroke. You look at where you can maximize your speed depending on what stroke you’re best at and holding off enough so you have energy until the end.”

No stranger to the Paralympics

Mehain competed in the 2012 London Paralympics and that experience will make a difference for her in Rio.

Going into London she was focused on getting experience, having fun and “getting my head wrapped around being at one of the biggest sporting competitions in the world.”

That experience will be to her advantage.

“Going into Rio, I have quite a bit more knowledge on who I’m racing, what my world ranking is, and what that means.”

Sarah Mehain

For Mehain, knowing what to expect at the Paralympic games also means going into the Olympic village situation will be less of a shock.

“I’ll be better equipped to deal with all the different variables and have more focus.”

Meanwhile her training regime is just that: a regime.

Mehain’s six to eight swim practices a week include a couple solo practices with her coach to focus on different aspects of swimming that she needs to work on.

“With my disability there are certain things I need to change, certain technical aspects, and maybe take a little more rest.”

Mehain swims with her left arm during the butterfly so she practices her techniques away from the varsity team as well with her coach.

And she rests more. Mehain also works on her fitness and strength with two to three sessions per week in the gym. Depending on the season, the focus can be on technique, and fitness which means lots of metres in the pool.

Add to that, she follows a gluten and dairy-free diet due to allergies so while many swimmers are just trying to get enough calories and the right ones, her diet is quite strict.

Since London, Mehain said she has been swimming the majority of races “smarter and faster.” And she knows what she wants in Rio: medals.

She’s looking forward to going in being competitive, which for her means focusing on her own race.

“I don’t spend too much time looking at what other people are doing in the pool.”

She finds the best way to improve her race daily is to train.

“I’m spending so much time training, in the water, alone, and only a small portion of time actually racing against people.”

At the start of a fresh swim season Mehain is excited, as she prepares for the qualifiers in March.

“I’m feeling quite confident and very excited for a chance to compete for a spot on the Paralympic team,” she said.

The Paralympic games take place in Rio de Janeiro, from Sept. 7 to 18, 2016  with 4,350 athletes expected from 178 countries. It will be the first Paralympic games held in South America and follows the Olympic games from Aug. 5 to 21