Sarah Mehain curled her toes over the edge of the London Paralympics pool. It’s difficult for her to say what happened next.
Presumably she dived in. Mehain’s memories of the competition are lost in a tide of emotions.
“It was very overwhelming,” she says. “Your mind just kind of goes blank.”
Four years later, Mehain is no longer a wide-eyed swimmer. The 21-year-old former Nelson Neptune will represent Canada when the Paralympics open Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro, and she’ll be a legitimate medal threat in her five events.
When she was competing in London, Mehain tried to just enjoy the experience. In Rio, she’ll be focused on the podium.
“The success I’ve had over the past two years has given me confidence in what I can do going into this Games,” she says. “I’m definitely expecting more out it.”
Mehain has been trending up since last year when she won bronze at the IPC Swimming World Championships and was a fraction of a second away from winning gold. Then at the 2015 Parapan Am Games in Toronto, Mehain set the Games’ record in the 50-metre butterfly S7 to win gold while also returning home with three other silver medals.
She’s been in the pool since she was four years old, but it wasn’t until after the Parapans that Mehain began setting aside parts of her life to make swimming the priority. She took a reduced course load at Montreal’s McGill University, where she’s studying environmental sciences, to start spending more time in the pool.
In a week she’ll be in the water six to eight times, do three weight training sessions, watch video and visit with a sports psychologist. She doesn’t want to get lost in the moment again on the Paralympic stage.
“When you go into a Games-type setting there’s a lot going on. Practising, being focused and mentally steady and stable is very important,” she says.
What Mehain has never lacked for is drive.
She was born with hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy, which means the right side of her body is weaker than the left. She has trouble, for example, holding a pencil or picking up a phone with her right hand.
It makes sense that the Mehain family turned to sports as a way of helping Sarah live with her disability.
Mehain’s mother, Mae Hooper, won a silver medal at the World Masters Cross-Country Skiing Championships in 2011. Her father, John Mehain, was once a recreation officer in the West Kootenay. Both her older sister Heather and younger sister Hannah have competed in the World Junior Cross-Country Championships.
“We were always outdoors. We were always active,” says Sarah Mehain. “Our family vacations were going on hikes and going backpacking in the Rockies.”
John says concerns about his daughter’s disability led him and his wife to put Sarah in plenty of different sports such as skiing, horseback riding (John and Mae own a ranch in Vernon now where Sarah once rode), and snowboarding. But it was swimming that stuck, and John credits the Neptunes with making that happen.
“We really wanted to give Sarah the best chance of developing in spite of her disability,” says John. “When we started her in swimming lessons when she was about four, and she was five when she started with the Neptunes, she had a real trouble swimming but she was determined. When she finished her first race with the Neptunes she got a standing ovation. She was going to make it happen and she did it.”
The family moved to Vernon when Sarah Mehain was 12. It was there she started swimming for the Vernon Kokanee Swim Club, and was encouraged by then-coach Bruce Melton to test her potential.
“I met this coach who said, ‘Hey, do you want to go to Australia? Do you want to travel? See what you can do?’ I was like, of course! That kind of brought me into the sport.”
Two years later Mehain made her first trip to an international competition. She was 14 at the Para-swimming world short course championships in Rio, and surrounded by athletes who had made a career in the pool.
She returned to Canada determined to do the same.
“Growing up I had not spent a lot of time with people with disabilities,” says Mehain. “The first time I made a Paralympic team I saw this group of people who were so diverse, everybody has different physical abilities, and being able to be part of that group and see that everybody’s just the same, everybody’s their own person whether or not they’re in a wheelchair or running around or they have a visual impairment.
“That’s really incredible, being able to change your perspective on yourself. That’s something the Paralympics have given me.”
Mehain has come a long way since her first trip to Rio. She enters the Paralympics ranked fourth in the world in her best event, the 50 butterfly S7, in which she’s most hopeful for a medal.
“I hope to go in and be competitive in that race,” says Mehain. “Whether that means I’m on the podium or I get very close to the podium, I want to go into that race and know I’m with the top swimmers in the world and really be confident in my race.”
And maybe this time she’ll even remember how it all went.