By Dan Plouffe
When Ottawa National Diving Club head coach Brennan Villemaire talks about the pride he feels in seeing all that Kathryn Grant has achieved, and the person she’s become, he gets a little choked up.
Then he smiles and explains that he feels a bit like another parent to Grant, and she’s about to leave the nest.
“She came to me as an athlete when she was seven years old,” Villemaire underlines. “I’ve watched her grow up. You’ve been through the highs, you’ve been through the lows, you’ve been through the teenage years… It’s tough to put it in words.”
To say the pair share a special bond doesn’t quite do it justice. From the time Grant arrived at ONDC from London, ON full of energy and ambition, to now, as a mature high school senior who’s battled through COVID to achieve her dream of an NCAA scholarship, Villemaire figures they’ve spent at least 6,000 hours together.
“When you’re training six days a week, four hours each day, over an entire decade, it adds up,” notes the 30-year-old who’s grown up as a coach alongside his club’s first NCAA-bound athlete. “It’s to the point where I can’t remember a time coaching when she wasn’t there.”
Grant says the feeling of family at ONDC is very real, pointing out that she spends almost as much, if not more, of her waking hours with her teammates and coaches at the pool than her family at home.
“Brennan and all the other coaches are the most welcoming and accepting people I know,” signals Grant, who’s travelled with Villemaire across the province, country and the Americas for competitions.
“A lot of us would consider ourselves kind of like outcasts – maybe we don’t have the biggest friend groups in school or in other aspects of our lives, but when we come here, I like to describe it as a ‘safe community’ where we can just express ourselves and be who we want to be with no judgment.
“Being part of the community is something that I think a lot of these kids really crave and strive for. We’re all super close, and we hang out outside of the pool all the time. These are my best friends, honestly.”
On top of her abilities on the springboard and the platform, Grant occupies a huge leadership role at ONDC and serves as an inspiring role model for the club’s younger athletes, highlights her coach. Grant remembers looking up to older athletes at the start of her diving journey, and the impact they had on her then and now (she still calls on them for advice on occasion).
“I’ve always really wanted to be that person for the younger athletes – to set a good example, and push them to be their best,” reflects the University of Utah-bound student-athlete.
Villemaire says Grant never wavered from her long-term commitment to diving and the objectives she set, which makes her fairly unique.
“It was never like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I could be doing this or that with my friends, maybe I’m missing out on something else.’ It was always 100% dedication,” he recounts. “This is what she’s wanted to do for a really long time.
“They’re an anomaly to find kids that are completely dedicated to a sport, that are hardworking, that can actually put a goal in writing, say this is what I want to do, and commit to the amount of time it takes to get there.”
Villemaire says, in his eyes, results are secondary to personal development, though Grant’s had plenty of impressive performances over the years. There are countless provincial titles and medals, Ontario records set along the way, a trio of national gold medals in her age group, and she’s represented Ontario and Canada internationally on multiple occasions.
“I feel like she’s accomplished everything she set out to do,” Villemaire indicates.
There were many great competitions in her youth career, but Grant says what she treasures even more is all the times they’ve laughed about “the big smacks” when dives go wrong during training.
“You want to say that it’s winning gold medals and all of that, but at the end of the day, it’s the small moments with all my friends at the pool,” she underlines. “When there’s like five of us here and we can just be ourselves and joke around and have fun at practices – I think those are probably where all my best memories stem from.”
Grant to join Utah Utes in Salt Lake City
Similarly, when it came time to select a university destination, Grant wasn’t laser-focused on going to a school with piles of championships, though she’s still landed with a rising program that won the Pac-12 conference combined men’s/women’s title last season and sent five divers to the NCAA finals.
Canadian high schoolers looking to get recruited by U.S. schools faced additional challenges during COVID, given cancelled competitions and public health restrictions that weren’t present for American athletes. Travelling across the border was difficult too, though Grant managed to visit the University of Utah and “beautiful” Salt Lake City last September.
Watching practices and seeing the way coach Richard Marschner worked with his divers reminded Grant of her current coach, which clinched the deal.
“I saw how engaged he was with the athletes,” Grant notes. “He’s really invested in their lives as people, not just keeping everything at the pool. He was really outgoing with the athletes, and supporting them in whatever they choose to do, which is really similar to Brennan.”
Landing an athletic scholarship to pursue diving for four more years is “crazy,” adds the John McCrae Secondary School senior.
“It’s just like, all I could ever ask for,” smiles Grant, who will explore different subjects in her first years at Utah before picking a major, though she likes social sciences and may like to pursue psychology.
Grant is feeling nervous now that she’s begun making final preparations for her Aug. 16 departure, like arranging her student visa and housing.
“It’s all kind of becoming real now, but I really could not be more excited,” signals Grant, who’s hoping the new setting will ignite a new spark, especially after enduring a couple years of COVID.
“I think change is definitely needed in order to grow further,” she notes.
Villemaire knows Grant has all the tools she needs to move on and succeed at the next level, and they’ll be excited to see her at Christmas and during the summer back home, but not having her there each day at the Nepean Sportsplex will be tough.
“We’ve got a running joke about who’s gonna cry more at our end of the year banquet – the parents or me?” he laughs. “You know, it’s like she’s the kid leaving the house. It’ll be an adjustment period for everyone not having Katherine there at practice. We’re all going to miss her.”
Read More in our 2022 High School Best Series, presented by Louis-Riel Sports-Études, as we tip our caps to top local student-athletes at:
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.