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Personality: Mark Versfeld

Looking For The Big Whirlwind


Karin Helmstaedt

Sometimes it takes a while to find the winning formula, the right combination of training, rest, diet, and diversion. The little something that results in the proper balance. For Mark Versfeld, Canada's number one-ranked backstroker, the quest for balance has led him to new cities, new coaches, and ultimately to a new attitude. And after two medals at the recent World Championships in Perth, he has seen what he can do; he just wants to do it better.

Sizing up a guy like Versfeld at a glance isn't easy. He's the one who never lets it out all at once. He answers questions slowly, deliberately, giving air time to the visions that accompany the thoughts. His expressions range from stony concentration, to shy mistrust, to set-jaw satisfaction. "My career has gone through a natural evolution," says the Fort McMurray native, as if wondering who wants to know. "I felt some success already at age 10. My friends were there, and I've always been improving, which made it fun."

He went to Edmonton for high school and made his first national team at the Commonwealth Games in 1994. When the National Centre got rolling in Calgary, Versfeld decided to go. But after two years of training with Deryk Snelling, he missed his selection for the 1996 Olympic team. "Obviously I looked up to Curtis Myden, and he's the best training partner," says Versfeld, who had mixed feelings about the intensity of the atmosphere in Calgary. "I was in Calgary mostly for Deryk, so when he left I wanted a change. I looked around, and the Vancouver Centre seemed like the obvious choice."

In the fall of 1996 Versfeld moved to Vancouver to train with Tom Johnson's Pacific Dolphins. The move got him back on track. "My backstroke seems to really have opened up," he observes. "Tom makes sure our lives are more rounded. (He) sticks with what has worked in the past, and I have built a good relationship with him."

"He had lost confidence (in Calgary), and he needed a change," says Johnson. "He needed something more in his life than just swimming. He needs balance and intellectual stimulation."

"Mark is very focussed, but he can become very easily consumed by what he is doing. He was too conscientious in Calgary, he wasn't able to leave swimming behind at the end of the day."

"I'm not a strong in-season swimmer," Versfeld adds. "It's a much bigger group and I like that a lot. It's not segmented like in Calgary. Tom keeps the groups integrated. Varsity, club, and international people all train together. The focus now is on the Commonwealth Games."

And there are other changes. A lot of heavy strength training in Calgary tended to beef up Versfeld's athletic frame. Johnson has him doing more long muscle work; Versfeld says he has stayed the same weight (75 kg) but is less bulky. Says Johnson, "We concentrate on strength, endurance and power, and our swimmers look like swimmers."

Silver and bronze for Versfeld in Perth
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Born of Dutch parents, Versfeld grew up with a strong sporting tradition. His mother, Hella (nee Rentema), swam for Holland's freestyle relay in the 1968 Olympics. She is now a triathlete and recently competed in the Triathlon world championships in Nice. "(My parents) just put us into swimming lessons," says Versfeld of how he got started.

His younger brother Niels, 16, made his national debut in Winnipeg, making consolation finals in both the 100 and 200 butterfly events. He finished 12th (57.12) and 13th (2:09.58) respectively. "He's a good little flyer," says Versfeld the elder with quiet pride. "He's pretty psyched, and he appreciates where I'm swimming at, and looks up to me." As for other activities, Versfeld does some snowboarding when he can. "It's nice to be so close to the mountains," he says.

For Versfeld, Johnson's philosophy fits the bill. "It's very empowering to feel like he's in control of his life," he says of Versfeld. "I don't run a program where I tell my swimmers what to do; my role is to keep them on track, so they can live balanced lives, and they're happier in the long term."

He goes on, "In order to have longevity in their careers you need to create a situation where that type of holistic approach is viable and sustainable. We try to help them with education and we are tolerant of it; they need discipline in their minds as well as their bodies, not totally consumed with an activity to the point of it being unhealthy." Johnson describes his Vancouver Centre model as "not as formally defined as Calgary."

"As money comes in we'll have more infrastructure to support those initiatives," he says. "Right now there are 24 swimmers in the group, and the 8 national centre athletes have invited status into it. Everyone is benefitting from the interaction."

At 21 and in second year Sciences, Versfeld's career ambitions are nebulous. "I'm pretty independent," he says, nodding his head slightly. "I like being responsible for what goes on around me." He's toying with the idea of political science.

Mark Versfeld, CAN
BIRTHDATE June 13, 1976
PLACE Edmonton, AB
HEIGHT 6 ft. 1 in. / 185 cm
WEIGHT 165 lbs / 75 kg
OCCUPATION U of BC Student / Swimming
REPRESENTS Pacific Dolphins (PDSA)
COACH Tom Johnson
- 98 Worlds 2nd 100 back 55.17, 3rd 200 back 1:59.39
- 97 Pan Pacs 3rd 100 back 55.55, 2nd 200 back 1:59.61, 3rd 4x100 medley
- 97 Nationals 1st 100 back 55.73, 2nd 200 back 2:02.19, 2nd 200 IM 2:04.07
- 95 Pan Pacs 3rd 100 back 56.08, 5th 200 IM 2:03.56
- 94 Commonwealths 9th 100 fly 56.02, 6th 200 IM 2:05.82

But he is clear about what he likes about the sport. "I like the character it develops, the people that come out of it," he says. He likes the travel ("Fort McMurray is pretty isolated...") and the exotic locations ("I consider myself a bit of a beach bum..."). All the good stuff...he's found the serenity to just enjoy it. "Being at a meet, I used to get really wound up," he remembers. "I couldn't sleep...at the Worlds (in Perth), once I made the final I wanted a best time. It was a fun time and I had done all the work."

"Now, I'm still in it for personal growth," he says. "Olympic year I had put a lot of hopes into making the team. When that didn't happen I stepped back; I had to reevaluate why I was in it. In Perth I didn't put as much pressure on myself. The night of Curtis and Lauren's medals the whole team was excited."

Versfeld pauses, thinking back to his race against American Lenny Krayzelburg in Perth: "I have the image in my mind of his legs right here beside me," he waves his hand off to the right of his shoulder, "and I'm thinking, 'This is the guy to beat.'"

"All medals are pretty good," he continues, "but the gold medal's where the big whirlwind kind of comes in. I'm really satisfied with my performances, but I have a tendency to look higher."

Then quietly: "My family was really excited." This guy's not in it for the attention.

"The '84 Olympic Games was a time when I had heros, and they were imprinted in me, Alex Baumann and Victor Davis. I always thought maybe one day. Then in '92 I was pretty inspired by Mark Tewksbury. I appreciated more what gold really meant," he says.

His own exploits are firmly rooted in reality. Stoicism covers up nostalgia. "One thing I didn't expect coming out of medalling at Pan Pacs and Worlds, was that (the medals) gave me a taste of it, and I have that extra motivation now."

And how does Canada measure up in the world? "I think we can do better," says Versfeld without hesitation. "I like to see people go all the way to the top, and we have that possibility. For what we put into the sport we're more than successful. We have a lot to be proud of."

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