SWIMNEWS ONLINE: May 1996 Magazine Articles

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Karin Helmstaedt

Nancy Sweetnam believes in learning experiences.

She also believes in herself, which is why she's back in the race and headed to Atlanta. And if people were wondering what happened to her after the Barcelona Olympics, well, it was a learning experience, and it's all coming out.

The individual medley swimmer from Lindsay, Ontario made waves in 1988 as a 15-year-old who came out of nowhere. Coached by her mother, Marian Sweetnam, she quickly rose to the top of the Canadian crop. She won a gold medal in the 200 IM at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and was a finalist at the 1991 World Championships. In 1992 she set a Canadian record in the 400 IM (4:45.58) and went to her first Olympic Games. She swam well off her best times in Barcelona, however, finishing 7th (200; 2:17.13) and 13th (400; 4:50.17) in the IMs.

In the fall of the Olympic year Nancy embarked on a Commerce degree at Laurentian University in Sudbury, leaving her mother to train under Jeno Tihanyi, coach of double Olympic gold medalist Alex Baumann. She had her greatest short course season ever, setting Canadian records in the 200 IM (2:10.90), 400 IM (4:38.61), and 200 breast (2:25.69) at the CIAU Championships in Toronto.

But then things started to crumble.

While the life of a high school athlete is typically comfortable and stable, university athletes have to deal with a lot of transitions-changes in environment, a new school and routine, a new team, a different coach, a body that goes from adolescence to maturity. Along with all of this come new pressures, both in school and in the water. Many athletes handle such changes with little difficulty, but just as many find that the new combination doesn't work.


Over the next two years Nancy spiralled into a serious depression, watching the person she was be slowly destroyed. A string of negative comments from Tihanyi wore on her and she began to feel isolated, going through the motions of living, school and training, gaining weight and losing confidence in herself without understanding why.

A silver and bronze medal at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria did little to boost her spirits, and after getting back from the World Championships in Rome she was almost ready to pack it in. Her self-esteem was suffering and she was unable to communicate effectively with her coach.

"I was not getting the motivation I needed from my coach (Tihanyi) and I had no interest in swimming after Worlds," she says. "I took a month off and even then I didn't even want to get wet."

The road back to wellness has been long for Sweetnam.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Nancy took things into her own hands and tried to evaluate the problem. She took a trip down to Florida over Christmas to train with Nick Baker, "to see if I still liked to swim." She also considered how the heavy academic load of third year Commerce was affecting her ability to train.

"I like to do things at a high calibre," says Nancy. "My education and swimming are two different things and looking back, it was impossible to do them both (at the same level). People don't give you a ten second head start because you've got three years of university under your belt or are going to school at the same time. I was just asking too much of myself." She returned from Florida convinced that she still wanted to swim and dropped her course load to concentrate on training.

But by February 1995 she was still lower than low. "I was suicidal," she admits, "I didn't even want to live. I was talking with some friends and they told me to just get out."

The decision to leave school and the Laurentian team was "one of the hardest decisions in my life because school was something that you're supposed to do." But once it was made, the decision was liberating and started the process of rebuilding herself. The road back to wellness has been long, and Nancy says, "It's still a challenge, but I've got wicked family support and that has helped me a lot."

Low blood sugar

Nancy was nowhere to be seen at the following Winter Nationals.

She quietly returned to Lindsay to train and went back to Florida several times, where she met up with Lois Daigneault, formerly of Montreal. Lois and Nick Baker train a small international group of swimmers in Plantation, Fla. Nancy hit it off with Lois, whose strong technical background complemented Nick's motivational talents. Nick, who had worked under Tihanyi himself, offered "great insights" into Nancy's training in Sudbury.

A tough moment in her career came last summer at the Nationals in Winnipeg. "It was kind of like getting back on a horse again after a fall because it was the first time I was getting up and racing again," says Nancy. "What I wanted to do was continue on to Pan Pacs and to qualify for Rio."

Things went according to plan, and Nancy went on to Atlanta and got set in her mind to go to the Short Course World Championships in Brazil.

In the fall of 1995 Nancy went down to Florida to train full time. The warm weather and positive training atmosphere were just what she needed to keep looking on the bright side of things. "Lois is a great technical coach which is what I really feel I need," she says. "My freestyle has always been a weak leg and I've discovered that you can't just train more of it and be faster. You have to break it down, so that's what we did."

And then another revelation. Just prior to Rio Nancy was diagnosed with low blood sugar.

"I have never felt such relief as the day it was mentioned to me," she says. "Dizziness, insomnia, headaches, lack of energy, food cravings - I had never felt so out of control of myself and my life."

For too long the stress of balancing school, training, and something of a social life had been taking its toll. Nancy had gotten into a vicious circle of sleeping poorly and turning to food to give her the energy she needed to function. All those things put together had been compounding her depression. "I used to just deal with the symptoms," she says, "thinking it was my fault. It was a snowball that just kept growing and I didn't know or feel like I could stop it."

She sought the help of a nutritionist, and by carefully monitoring the types of foods and the times she eats, has virtually eliminated the problem. "I think it's incredible how nutrition can play such a major role in regard to one's attitude and outlook on life," she adds.

Getting up and racing

Nancy went on to have a great showing in Rio, where she was second to teammate Joanne Malar in the 400 IM while posting a personal best time of 4:37.04. That performance was followed by a series of World Cup meets in Europe in February of this year, where Nancy swam tired and managed to improve on each successive race. She won the 200 and 400 IMs in Imperia and Gelsenkirchen and finished second overall in the individual medley category behind Australia's Elli Overton, a placing that secured her $3,500 US.

Pleased to have made the team again.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

"I've had to change my mental approach towards racing. With Doc a lot of it was to do with splits and times, and I've come to realize that I'm more of an emotional, gutsy swimmer. What I've been working on is just getting up and racing instead of worrying what my split is going to be. The World Cup was really good for that."

Olympic Trials in Montreal presented a new challenge, a chance to put all the previous year's work to the test. Nancy came through with a second place finish in the 400 IM (4:48.04) and a time that beat the FINA qualifying standard to secure a berth on her second Olympic team. "I'm really pleased to have made the team," she said, "but timewise I was a bit disappointed because I know I can go faster."

"There were a lot of things involved in that race that not many people know about," said Lois Daigneault in Montreal. "The performances were secondary here-I'm really happy for her and so is she-but I think what's primary is what she's gotten as a person, to be happy to swim and to enjoy it."

Having fun again

As someone who has been trained primarily by women, Nancy feels there is definitely a difference between male and female coaches.

"From my experiences women are more emotional and more in tune with their bodies. And I don't mean emotional in a bad sense-that's just the way they communicate and it's easier to talk to them about a lot of things."

"Lois is great because she's a past swimmer herself and she has dealt with a lot of the issues that women have to deal with, like (body) weight and trying to balance things."

"Mostly what we've been working on with Nancy is the belief factor," says Lois. "We do that by integrating different things into workouts and into her lifestyle and life-plan; it's been kind of like reconstructing a person and then putting all of that into the water."

Interestingly, much of Nancy's testimony echoes that of past swimming stars who have gone through a rough time emotionally with the demands and pressures of the sport, particularly Elaine Tanner. Tanner had problems with depression and anorexia after failing to win Olympic gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and claims one of her biggest mistakes was trying to please other people.

While Nancy's ordeal has been shorter-lived, she has the advantage of living in an age when psychology and body image, although still widely neglected and passed over by coaches, are recognizable starting points for a healing process. It is no coincidence that Tanner, after surmounting her own problems of low self-esteem, is now a health counsellor focusing on helping other people with issues such as weight management and eating disorders.

"You really have to like yourself and I think swimming is a great sport to do that," says Nancy. "It's unfortunate that there are some people out there who don't allow you to be the best that you can be. I don't regret any of the experiences I've had; I believe things happen for a reason. Last year was an extremely tough year for me. But do you know what? I did it."

At 23, Nancy says she feels like a new person. "I'm having fun again and just feeling better about myself. I feel like I'm in control." It took Tanner over twenty years to be able to say the same thing.

The year off from school has also let Nancy develop other interests and reorient herself. "I think it's good to keep your mind busy," she says. After three years of Commerce and Sports Administration, she has transferred to the University of Guelph where she will take Hotel and Food Administration in the fall. She is interested in television (she has worked at two TV stations) and particularly marketing. "But not athletes," she specifies, "I could market a product, but after being involved in Sports Administration, well, I think it's a bit harsh. We're human beings and there should be fun in the sport."

Given the chance, she says, she would even take another year off. She is involved with Toastmasters, an international speaking group, and would love to find an opportunity as a spokesperson. "I'm not afraid to go out of the mainstream anymore," she says. "There are so many endless possibilites."

"Believing in yourself, that's the bottom line for me right now."

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