HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
OH, SO OLYMPIC CLOSE: Montana Champagne started swimming at age six and, like most young athletes, was inspired by the Olympic Games. A decade ago, he believed they were a realistic goal.
“At 14 or 15, I really thought I had a chance. I just needed to put in the work and set my sights on it,” Champagne, 24, said in a phone interview. “Things went well or as well as they could have.”
Along the way, he was required to deal with shoulder and back injuries with his coaches and physiotherapists. And he occasionally struggled with motivation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
But Champagne followed the required prescription – thousands of morning and afternoon practice sessions, tens of thousands of kilometres in the buoyed lanes and multiple local, provincial, national and international meets.
And then he experienced, not once, but twice, the final exam for all of his dedication and hard labour – the 2021 and 2016 Canadian Olympic swimming trials, which were held under totally different circumstances.
He needed to achieve an elite, international time standard in his trials’ races to become an Olympian. But the numbers on the digital clock ticked a little faster than Champagne could move his arms, shoulders and legs.
Champagne competed in four races at the 2021 Olympic trials and five races in 2016. In each case, he touched the finish wall a few seconds short of the intended goal. Instead of being an Olympian, he’ll be a team supporter.
At his first Olympic trials, he felt he had “an outside shot” of making the team in the 200- or 400-metre individual medley, the 100- or 200-metre butterfly or the 200-metre breaststroke. It would be a learning experience.
Qualifying for the 2021 trials, which were delayed more than a year because of the pandemic, in the 200- and 400-metre IMs and 100- and 200-metre butterflys, he felt prepared, despite no spectators and piped in cheering.
“I had had the experience of an Olympic trials and the finals,” he said. “I knew what I was getting into. I felt I had gained from the (2016) experience. The experience taught me about feeling the pressure and excitement.”
In his opening 100-metre butterfly, Champagne was last off the blocks, but was sixth in the final in 54.35 seconds or 2.37 shy of the Olympic standard. In the 200-metre IM, he was fifth in 2:02.55 or 3.67 back of his goal.
Champagne’s best chance to earn an Olympic berth was in his best race, the 200-metre butterfly. He swam a strong opening 100 metres and was in contention for the five-ring prize. But the second 100 metres tore him apart.
“My main competition was Mack Darraugh (Oakville Aquatic Club). We both realized that we must make the time (1:56.48). It didn’t matter who won. We had to push hard for the first 100 and push harder coming home,” he said.
“Essentially, it hurt too much coming home. I gave it my best. It was better than going out slow and putting yourself in a position to make up time.”
Champagne stopped in 1:59.34 for second place.
Despite the outcomes of both trials, Champagne, who was a distant eighth in his final 2021 trials race, the 400-metre IM (4:27.92), had no regrets.
“I was fully committed to making the team. I was confident. I wasn’t able to race (during the pandemic). It was a struggle. But I controlled what I could control. I had a positive mindset to give my absolute best,” he added.
Champagne believes the end result could have been happier, if the pandemic hadn’t denied him adequate gym time for strength training or racing opportunities to put his training to a true test.
“A lack of racing in the past year … and the lack of training in a proper weight room facility for the last three months … were big negative factors,” said uOttawa Gee-Gees Dave Heinbuch, who coaches Champagne with Greater Ottawa Kingfish Swim Club’s Jason Allen.
As Canada’s swim team begins its quest for top Olympic results on Saturday, Champagne can take it all in on television or through social media as he enters a new phase in his life _– athletic retirement.
The people in his immediate swimming community encouraged Champagne to continue training and racing for another three years and take a third shot at the Canadian Olympic trials for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.
“But for now, I’m retired,” said Champagne, who hopes to write his LSAT test for law school admission in October. “It’s a huge decision to make and it still hits me in small doses. I definitely didn’t treat this lightly.
“I started to look at it when we went into lockdown. There were so many questions that affected our lives. During the lockdown, I said: ‘What do I do?’ They postponed the Olympics. I needed to think about myself.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.