Local Club: uOttawa Gee-Gees
By Martin Cleary
PARALYMPICS BOUND: In the final seconds before any of her five swimming races at the 2021 Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo, Gatineau’s Camille Bérubé can look down her narrow, marked lane and see serenity.
That’s quite a change from “the shark-infested” waters she has experienced for the past three years to get to the point where she will now represent Canada against the best swimmers with disabilities at her third straight Paralympics.
Gone is the mental health crisis that plagued her in 2018. Gone is the disappointment of having no competitions in the past 17 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gone is the crushing blow of having the 2020 Paralympics postponed a year.
Those hurdles have come and passed, but they’re still in the blurry background, serving as a method of motivation for Bérubé, who will be one of the busiest Canadian swimmers in the pool with races in all five individual disciplines.
Bérubé, 26, has lived through a lot in the past three years and, if she can channel that adversity into energy, it may help her reach her first Paralympic final. Her best result at Rio 2016 was a ninth and at London 2012, it was 11th.
In 2018, Bérubé struggled with depression and anxiety. She was out for a month and had “a very gradual comeback.” Bérubé said if her coach, Craig McCord of Natation Gatineau, wasn’t so understanding, she wouldn’t be heading to Tokyo.
“He has had a huge impact on me the last four years,” said Bérubé, who was born with cancer, which impacted both of her legs. “He is more of a father figure to me. He knows me and how I respond to training.
“He has built a program around what works for me. We have a friendship and open communication. It’s useful and inspiring. I trust him with my life.”
Bérubé’s mental health challenges almost pulled her out of swimming, a sport where she won a silver and two bronze medals at the Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games.
“I questioned a lot, even my desire to swim,” said Bérubé, who has followed many other elite athletes to talk openly about mental-health issues. “The moment I would head to the pool, I would have a panic attack.
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe in the water. I took time off. When I got that (swimming) feel back, I did the backstroke because my head would be out of the water. It was a very gradual comeback.
“It was one of the hardest years of my life. But I have grown as a person. I talk openly about it. There’s no stigma about talking about mental health. Look at (Olympic gymnast) Simone Biles. High-performance sport is great, but my mental health is much more important.”
That important timeout was valuable for Bérubé. She returned to full training in time to qualify for the Canadian team to the 2019 International Paralympic Committee world championships, reaching three finals in four individual races.
Bérubé was sixth in the SM7 200-metre individual medley, seventh in the S7 100-metre backstroke and eighth in the SB6 100-metre breaststroke. She also was ninth in the S7 50-metre butterfly.
At the Tokyo Paralympics, Bérubé will race the SM7 200-metre individual medley, SB6 100-metre breaststroke, S7 100-metre backstroke, S7 100-metre freestyle and S7 50-metre butterfly. Swimming will be held Aug. 25-Sept. 3.
While the ongoing pandemic left Bérubé with an off and on training schedule because of pool closures, she found other ways to train – hand bike, gym workouts and walking. But she feels she has emerged a better person.
“I’m definitely a more solid athlete, emotionally and mentally,” Bérubé said. “The lockdown made us develop… it was hard for us emotionally.
“We were left to deal with adversity in sport and life in general. It was a challenging year and learning experience. I am grateful for that.”
Without any racing since February 2020, Bérubé is uncertain where she ranks in the world in her two best events, the SM7 200-metre individual medley and the SB6 100-metre breaststroke.
“My goal is to make the top six,” she added. “Ideally, I hope to work towards the top eight. I haven’t reached a Paralympic final before and when you race for a medal, anything can happen.
“Given the uncertainty, it will be very interesting. There might be people popping out of nowhere. I control what I can control. I’ll throw out my best races. My opponents better watch out.”