SWIMNEWS ONLINE: September 1996 Magazine Articles

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The best in the world are emotionally driven to race

Karin Helmstaedt

To make her international debut, Christin Petelski decided on The Big One. The Centennial Olympic Games. The biggest, glitziest, and most commercial sporting event of the century.

While the prospects of swimming before a crowd of 14,000 screaming fans could be daunting to the most seasoned of veterans, Christin took the challenge in stride and tried to concentrate on her own plan.

"I didn't get intimidated at all. Actually, I think I was a bit too calm," she says with a grin.

As one of five rookies on the Canadian swim team, Christin had no point of reference with which to compare the Games. Her first national team, her first taste of international competition, it all happened in Atlanta. With everything riding on one race, the 200 breaststroke, the clear-eyed 18-year-old from Victoria, B.C. kept her cool. She qualified for the Olympic final and finished 8th in 2:31.45. An admirable achievement.

Two days after the biggest race of her life, she says she learned a "whole bunch" from her Olympic experience. Her neophyte status is obvious as she struggles to express her thoughts, too fresh, still muddled.

"It's been really fun, exciting...overwhelming," she says. "It's not like what I expected-I guess I didn't expect so many people. Swimming against all these great athletes-it's kind of weird. I guess I haven't figured it out yet."

A pause before she goes on. "I knew that in the morning I'd have to be pretty fast to make the final. My coach kept on telling me, you have to be a 2:29 to make it. So when I swam a time of 2:30, which is the best morning swim that I've done, I knew that, oooh, I was on the edge. And then 8th place, it was like, wow! Exciting!"

Olympic final in rookie year for Christin Petelski
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

In the hype of such a new situation, it helped a great deal to have her own coach, Ron Jacks, on the pool deck in Atlanta. Jacks warned Christin about the "jungle" aspect of an international roundup.

"Ron's been to three Olympics (as a swimmer) so he knows through experience himself how to prepare me mentally, and what to expect in terms of times and what other athletes are doing," says Christin. "When I first came here it was really kind of frustrating because in Gainesville (at training camp) we had two people in a lane. Here it was so crowded and everyone is just going for it. You get hit in the head so many times and you're just trying to do your own thing. Ron kind of prepared me for that."

"There are also a lot of emotions," she continues.

"Coming into the village you're on this unbelievable high and you have to control that and focus on your own race. Ron was trying to gear me towards that-to not get distracted by everything."

Having never competed against the likes of world record-holders Penny Heyns (RSA) or Samantha Riley (AUS) before, it was difficult to know what to expect. Here's how Christin describes her Olympic final:

"I wasn't as nervous (for the final) as I was in the heats. I walked into that room and everyone was just sitting back, relaxed. Usually it's different back home-I guess swimming in your own country everyone gets so nervous...but here everyone's just kind of laid back, having fun, but I guess internally they're all excited and not really showing it. I was just up, shaking out my legs, stretching on the walls-it was weird."

"Behind the blocks it was kind of weird because I didn't really know how they (Heyns and Riley) raced-which is the good part for me because then I can really focus on my own race. But in some ways I wanted to know how they swim a race. It would have benefitted me going into the finals."

The race itself is still churning itself through her mind, where it will be filed away for future reference.

And who does she admire on the pool deck?

"Anyone from Penny Heyns to Amanda Beard-even though she is younger than me," says Christin with a laugh. "I think all these good athletes who get on to the podium because they have so much in them mentally and physically. It is so neat to watch them on deck and watch what they do. You can just feel this power-it's like an emotion they have that's just so strong: they want to race. And it's so easy to see that when they walk by; they're just so focused."

Christin laughs nervously when the questions focus on her. "I don't really like describing myself that much," she says, blushing. "I'm fun, and I'm probably shy in some ways too."

But not too shy to do an initiation "line dance" on Rookie Night...she laughs again and says, "I just had fun with that."

"I'm a person that before my race I have to be alone-kind of into myself. Listen to my music, read books, get my sleep, basically mentally go through my race over and over and over again."

Christin enthuses when asked about the Canadian team.

"Everyone's been really wonderful," she says. "It's a really great team. Everyone's together, everyone supports each other and it's just a really good bonding between all of us."

The day after her race Christin took the time to tour around the Olympic Village. The "distractions" were many, with everything from video arcades to a dance room to the e-mail computer terminals, where the line-ups were so long that she says she rarely used them. She especially appreciated the housing for Canadians in the Village, qualifying it as "really cool."

"We have an athletes' lounge downstairs and all the athletes get together there. We watch all the swimming together, rowing or gymnastics. You start to get to know everyone on the whole Canadian team."

But despite the intensity and excitement, Christin says she will be glad to get home to see her family. "I haven't seen my Mom for a month and a half," she says.

Like other Olympic team members, Christin was required to swim at the Canadian Nationals in Etobicoke (Aug. 8-11). Coming off the Olympic high, the meet was another opportunity to work on getting her mind "into the right head space."

While her performance was not what she had hoped (first in the 200 and fourth in the 100), she and her coach seem satisfied with what they have accomplished this season.

"I think it's pretty important for me to perform well at other meets, even though the Olympic Games is a big thing," she says. "It's another practice meet. Now I know how the international system works, and it's a lot more stressful (than a Nationals)."

Speaking in Etobicoke, Jacks himself uses the proverbial "we" so typical of many successful coach-athlete partnerships.

"Our goal was always, from the beginning of the year, to swim well at the Olympics. We looked at getting through the Olympic Trials as a hurdle towards that step. I've always felt that it's very hard to compete internationally and a lot of the times the goal seems to be to get on the team. Even if you're not sure you're going to be on the team, I think you have to be prepared to swim at the Olympics."

"Our next goal was to be in the final. I think that getting on the team was a hurdle...we got through that. We got into the final and we were certainly pleased with that. I think that we didn't swim any better in the finals because we kind of left our goal there. We weren't really ready to reset something and maybe in retrospect we might have been not as psyched as we were in the morning."

He says that training with a monofin has allowed Christin to train a much greater volume of breaststroke-up to 5,000 or 6,000 metres a day-thereby significantly improving her arm strength.

"Christin is a really motivated girl. She works really hard and work ethics and discipline are very important in our program. She's set a goal to be on the podium in four years and she's somebody that I think, because of the meticulous way that she works and the way that she sets herself up, I think that those goals are something that she could achieve."

"I would love to make the Olympic team in four years, but I have to take it one step at a time," says Christin. One Olympic Games has clearly taught her not to jump the gun in an interview. After a relatively light first year course load at the University of Victoria, Christin plans to spend the coming year "catching up" on her General Science courses. Unsure of her career direction, she knows it will have something to do with sport.

"I really want to improve my times, make more teams and get that experience so that in another four years I can be up there," she says.

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