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Athlete, 14, moves to T.O. to follow synchro dream

Maddie Walker-Byron is eyeing a national team spot for synchronized swimming. Photo provided.

By Dan Plouffe

Imagine moving away from home at age 14. A new city, a new school, a new set of peers. And for synchronized swimmer Maddie Walker-Byron, an intense new training schedule to follow as well.

“I was worried about not really knowing anyone at all,” admits Walker-Byron, who recently moved from Ottawa to Toronto to pursue her sport. “It’s a lot to handle, especially with homework and being at the pool so much of the day. It’s hard.”

The new Granite Club Synchro member spends 22 hours a week at the pool, waking up at 4:45 a.m. twice a week for early-morning practices, and then taking the subway to school in Etobicoke.

“The first few times I was on the subway was kind of scary. You’re alone walking with so many people around you,” describes Walker-Byron, whose lone day off from swimming is Friday, a school day. “I get lost sometimes, and I’m worried I’m going to be late sometimes because the subway gets delayed.”

Now imagine you’re the mother who gets the text message from her daughter during her first week in the big city that says, “I’m lost.” It certainly could make you question that painstaking decision to allow your daughter to go in the first place.

“I’ve had a lot of parents tell me, ‘I don’t know how you did it. I wouldn’t let my child do it,’” Judy Walker recalls. “There was that part too, where I thought, ‘Am I being careless here?’”

There was also the concern about not being there for a big change in her daughter’s life starting high school, and facing a new set of challenges.

“The day I left, she told me, ‘Mom, just think I’ve gone to camp for a couple of weeks,’” recounts Walker, who visits every few weekends. “And then I just cried my whole way home. Or at least halfway home – I got to Kingston and then I was good.”

Much like the drive home, things got better after the initial worries and anxious moments passed. The pair are in touch all the time by phone or text, and there was never any worry about Walker-Byron being supported since she’s staying with Walker’s sister-in-law, a swimming mom herself. And since the Labour Day move, Walker Byron’s found a whole new set of friends without much trouble.

“Swimming is good because you develop a bond with your teammates really easily because you’re together so much,” the Roberta Bondar Public School grad notes. “At school, I’m slowly starting to get friends. Grade 9 was such a good year to go because everyone’s in transition anyways.”

There are many other athletes to connect with at Silverthorn Collegiate Institute, which has a program set up to accommodate athletes’ sports training and competition schedules. And despite having less time in the pool and to build core strength back in Ottawa, Walker-Byron’s previous training at the Gloucester Synchro Club prepared her well for the added volume she now experiences.

“I’m training a lot more hours and I’m getting stronger,” says Walker-Byron, who has no regrets about the big decision she made. “I really wanted to move. I have high goals for myself.”


The main objective at the moment is to qualify for the 13-15-year-old national team, which she hopes will then lead to junior and senior national team opportunities. Walker-Byron barely missed qualifying for Team Canada last year, instead earning a spot on the provincial team that’s headed to competition in Prague, Czech Republic at the end of November.

“She was really close last year just swimming with Gloucester,” notes Gloucester Synchro head coach Lianna Sottile. “She was on the cusp, so putting in more hours, I can’t see how she wouldn’t be there.”

The nation’s capital does produce top synchro athletes, Sottile adds, but local clubs in Gloucester, Nepean, Ottawa, and Gatineau are largely volunteer-run programs with limited pool time. That means elite athletes looking to train for an Olympic level need to move to bigger centers in Toronto or Montreal, which is where another former Gloucester synchro athlete, Carlie Cholette, currently trains with the national team.

That was the deal-clincher for the Walker-Byron family – with a solid plan in place for living arrangements, school, and swimming, the deciding factor was allowing their daughter to chase her sports dreams.

“She always used to say to me, ‘I’m so happy I found my sport,’” explains Walker, who appreciates the experiences all three of her daughters gained through synchro. “At a certain point, I guess we thought we have to give her the opportunity and see where it takes her.”

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