July 30: Celebrating a golden day in Canadian swimming history

July 30: Celebrating a golden day in Canadian swimming history

For Anne Ottenbrite, July 30th is even better than her birthday.

“My favourite time every four years that I celebrate with family and friends,” said the head coach of the Pickering Swim Club from her home in nearby Port Perry, Ont.

“Besides, what happened in 1984 was only 36 years ago and I like that number better than my age,” she chuckled.

At the Los Angeles Olympics, Ottenbrite, who was 18 at the time, became the first Canadian woman in Games history to win a gold medal in the pool by capturing the 200 metre breaststroke over Susan Rapp of the United States and Ingrid Lempereur of Belgium.

“It put the finishing touches on a story of trials and tribulations in order for me to get there,” Ottenbrite recalled.

WATCH | July 30, Canadian Olympic swimming’s golden day:

July 30th is a special day for Canada at the Olympics. They’ve won three swimming gold medals on this day, twice in 1984, and again in 1992 3:39
A Commonwealth Games champion and world championship medallist, Ottenbrite had missed the Olympic trials because of a dislocated knee cap and then got in a car accident in L.A., which left her with whiplash. In the days before her event she strained a thigh, and suffice it to say, she would swim against the current in the final.

But when she touched the wall in a time of two minutes, 30.38 seconds and heard the public address announcement that she was the winner, it left an indelible mark on her psyche.

“I call it the moment,” Ottenbrite reflected. “I always wanted to be Olympic champion and I always visualized putting my arms up in the air when it happened. I wouldn’t allow myself to do it when I won any other race, at the Commonwealth Games or anywhere else. It was indescribable to finish my visualization.

“I’ve never experienced that emotion again.”

Ottenbrite’s gold medal came just 30 minutes after another Canadian had broken through in the pool in Los Angeles.

Adversity builds champions

Alex Baumann, a 20-year-old from Sudbury Ont., entered as the Commonwealth Games champion in the 400m individual medley and had been the Canadian flag-bearer at the opening ceremony in Los Angeles.

Baumann’s father and brother had both passed away in the lead up to the Games and he was nursing a chronically injured shoulder, so the highly-touted swimmer was not only dealing with heavy expectations but also the burden of grief and pain.

“True champions have to go through adversity,” Baumann said during a Zoom interview from Gold Coast, Australia, where he is the high-performance director of that country’s swimming program.

“Studies have shown that those athletes who have won gold medals have had some kind of trauma in their lives. But in the months leading up to the Games I stopped reading the press because it was always saying gold medals … two gold medals. If you start believing that before it’s actually done, it’s quite dangerous.”

WATCH | How Alex Baumann faced the pressure of being Canada’s best Olympic hope:

Swimmer Alex Baumann faces the pressure of being Canada’s best Olympic hope. 6:29

Baumann got the job done clinically and dispatched his closest rivals Ricardo Prado of Brazil – the reigning world champion in the 400 individual medley (IM) – and Rob Woodhouse of Australia.

The time was 4:17.41, a new world record, and the performance by Baumann resulted in the first Olympic gold medal by a Canadian swimmer since George Hodgson of Montreal won the 400m and 1500m freestyle races 72 years earlier at the 1912 Games in Stockholm.

“It takes some time to sink in. Twenty minutes later you get up on the podium and hear the Canadian anthem and that’s quite surreal,” Baumann said.

“Winning the gold medal was incredible and competing for my own country was incredible. But with the boycott the secondary goal was to break the world record to show that nobody could have beaten me.”

The Los Angeles Olympics were indeed boycotted by most Eastern bloc countries, but Baumann’s victory on July 30th followed by Ottenbrite’s gold medal half an hour later, signalled that the Canadian swimmers were world beaters and there would be no figurative asterisk in the record books because of who wasn’t there to compete.

July 30th set the tone

Baumann would go on to win another gold medal in world record time in the 200m individual medley while Anne Ottenbrite got to the podium twice more at those Games. In all, the group of Canadian swimmers, which included the charismatic and powerful Victor Davis, captured 10 medals in Los Angeles – four of them gold – which meant they were second only to the Americans on the medal table.

But it was the watershed on July 30th that set the tone.

“I was in the ready room as Alex was swimming and I heard the Canadian anthem just before I marched out to the pool deck for my race. Not a bad little motivator,” Ottenbrite enthused.

“As a group we were young and our attitude was, ‘we are as good as anybody else.’ Let’s stand up for that. Our idea was that we could change the progress of swimming in Canada because of those Olympics. It was that impactful and it was definitely part of the plan.”

Eight years later in Barcelona, Spain, 24-year-old Mark Tewksbury of Calgary got to the Olympic 100m backstroke final on July 30, 1992.

Tewksbury was ranked fourth in the world and considered to be the heavy underdog to the dominant world champion and world record holder Jeff Rouse of the United States who was thought to be a better underwater swimmer than the Canadian.

WATCH | Mark Tewksbury talked himself into competing in Barcelona:

Mark Tewksbury talks himself into competing one more time. 16:22

“Actually Jeff Rouse was reputed to be better than me in every aspect of that race, not just under the water,” Tewksbury laughed from his home in Calgary.

“I knew I had all kinds of work to do and I left no stone unturned. But on the day I actually got to the Olympics there was this incredible, overwhelming, feeling that someone has to win this race and why not me?”

Tewksbury answered the question and lived up to his reputation of being stellar over the final 25 metres by surpassing Rouse on the last stroke of the race and winning the gold medal in an Olympic record time of 53.98 seconds, just six one hundredths better than the American.

‘This is the dream’

“It was joy followed by instant shock which you can actually see on my face in the footage and that shock lasted quite a while,” Tewksbury explained.

“It broke when ‘O Canada’ got to be played during the medal ceremony. And it really hit me about nine days later when I was at athletics and it was towards the end of the Olympics. I was watching a medal ceremony and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I won, that happened to me. This is the dream.'”

July 30 will forever be etched into the memories of Anne Ottenbrite, Alex Baumann, and Mark Tewksbury. It’s also a landmark day on the calendar for all of Canadian swimming because it provides proof positive that athletes from this country can be the best in international waters.

As a coach of aspiring athletes, Ottenbrite points to July 30 as being a day that has inspired the likes of current world champion Kylie Masse and Olympic gold medallist Penny Oleksiak to believe in their own abilities.

WATCH | Anne Ottenbrite on how she prepared for the biggest swim of her life:

Swimmer Anne Ottenbrite prepares for the race of her life. 2:36

“These moments are empowering,” Ottenbrite concluded.

“It feels as if as soon as you have these moments everyone elevates themselves. Excellence eliminates doubt. Young people see these winners and believe that they can be winners too.”

In this strange Olympic year another golden moment in the pool is impossible.

But July 30 will always be celebrated as the day when Canadians were gloriously in the swim.

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