Thanksgiving can be a lonely time for foreign students on American university campuses. I had no idea before I came to Minnesota how big a deal this holiday was and am I little jealous. Last year I stayed with my adopted Minnesota family, Pauline, Cindy and Erkon but they moved away this year leaving me to fend for myself. I knew last Summer that I had qualified for short course worlds in Qatar and I would be away from American Thanksgiving thru Minnesota exam week. Kelly was on board with me going as long as all my professors gave the OK as well. They did, so off to Doha.

My plane landed in Halifax at 3:30pm and by 5pm I was at the Dalplex on the Dalhousie University campus training with the Halifax Trojan Aquatic Club. Thanks to them and their coach Aaron Maszko for welcoming me and showing no mercy. Swimming with other teams is a lot of fun and urge all swimmers to do this once in a while. If you’re visiting somewhere just email the coach, or just show up, and they’ll welcome you. Easy way to make friends if you’re in a strange town. I was sort of hoping for a just-had-a tough-day-of-travel-let’s-swim-a-few-laps social type swim but I showed up on their tough day I think. Loved it though and I hope to be back.

Two hour drive to Guysborough with my grandparents for Thanksgiving. They lived in Georgia for 25 years and always celebrated both Canadian and American Thanksgiving so adding another holiday wasn’t anything new for them. Although my parents are both from BC, their parents are from Nova Scotia so this is where most of my aunts, uncles and cousins live. My tribe if you will. One of the crappy things about Canada is that it’s so darn big and it’s expensive to travel over four time zones so I don’t get to visit often enough but I certainly feel like it’s home and if I ever needed a kidney this is probably where I’d find one. We keep in touch the same way most large families do these days, by communicating with tablets and smart phones using twitter, facebook and Instagram but it isn’t as much fun as face-to-face. You can’t hug an iPad. I did a lot of visiting, helped my uncle buy a car and went ATVing with another uncle. Fun stuff. Our thanksgiving dinner was probably a lot like yours…..just replace football with hockey, recorded music with real fiddles and pianos. Black Friday was anticlimactic though. I swam on my own at St. F.X. university pool then left with my grandfather. We were both pretty excited about getting boxes of $22 chocolates on sale for $10 afterwards but we got to the store in Antigonish at 9:15am and the store didn’t open until 10am. We could have summoned our inner Americans and lined up with the strategy of having him block other shoppers while I raced to the candy section for the chocolates but we decided to drive home instead. We just aren’t good at that sort of stuff I suppose.

After a long flight from Halifax-Toronto-London I just sort of assumed I was almost there. Nope. Still more time zones and another 6 hours or so of flying before landing in Qatar. At this point it’s really just a swim meet with more similarities than differences. Another travel meet. Airport to hotel to pool to dinner table. Just like the t-shirt says….eat, sleep, swim, repeat. Qatar could have been Gainesville, Kamloops or Austin at this point with everyone doing the things swimmers normally do. Canada had a team of 10 swimmers and 7 coaches and support staff so I was certainly well taken care of. I roomed with Audray Lacroix and for the first time ever I regretted not taking French immersion in elementary school. I would have at least liked to know how to shout from the bathroom “can I use some of your expensive looking Euro shampoo?” in French. The time zone change was a bit of a challenge for me early on but I adapt better than most. I was wide awake at 2AM the first couple of days and drowsy during the day but it only lasted for 2 days. Swimming prelims in the middle of the night my time and having finals before breakfast took adjusting to but everyone was going through something similar. Some had it worse and some had it better so couldn’t use this as an excuse if I laid a swimming egg. I think everyone who swims 12 time zones away has to deal with bathroom issues because (and I promise not to go into it with too much description here) that part of the digestive process is just messed up. Your digestive system just doesn’t know what’s going on with the internal clock out of whack, the different time zone and a more arid climate. Exhale now….that wasn’t too bad.

The Swimming
The good. 1. Six starts and six best times. I don’t think I’ve done that since I was 11. I just seemed to get more and more relaxed each time I stepped onto the blocks and felt less and less like an imposter at a world level meet. It helped things that I haven’t swum SCM since high school so I was expecting best times. Still counts though J
2. I won a swim off. I’m now 1 win and 2 losses in these things so monkey is off my back. Everyone seems to improve their times in a swim off and it has to be because of the adrenaline rush you get facing off with someone one on one. If you could bottle that feeling and sell it you’d be rich. I beat someone from Slovenia who had an Olympic ring tattoo on her shoulder in the 100m breaststroke giving me the last spot in semi-finals. Ended up 11th.
3. Placed 4th in the 200m breaststroke final. I’ve become a good short course swimmer because I think because I spend so much time training in yards. It just forces you to get good at turns and underwaters because you just do it all the time. Before Minnesota, when I would pass a USA swimmer in a long course pool I would quietly think to myself “ha ha….our town has a long course pool and you swim in yards’ pools”. Now when I pass someone at a turn or underwater I think it’s because of the advantage I have swimming in a 25 yard pool most of the time. I nailed 4 of the 7 turns and 2 were good enough and I swallowed a bunch of water on 3rd to last turn. It’s near impossible to time all turns perfectly but I’m getting better at minimizing the damage of a bad turn. The old Kierra would have panicked after swallowing water (it certainly gets all your attention) but I managed to stay relaxed and sort it out quickly without losing much, if any, ground.

The bad. 24 hours of travel back home to Minneapolis gives you a lot of time to play on your computer. My uh oh moment was when I watched the 200 final on youtube and Kanako Watanabe who won the race said in an interview (Japanese with subtitles) afterwards that although she was pleased with the gold medal, she was disappointed with her time. That should put a chill down everyone’s spine especially since she’s 17 years old. I immediately felt guilty about my “pretty happy about 4th….got best times….shampoo here is cool….hung out with Audray Lacroix….rode an ATV, la la la ” attitude. Scary thought to all young (and old) breaststrokers with any dreams of one day being the best in the world out there, and probably the reason I’m coming home without a medal, is that you’ll have to compete with a teenage world champion who’s only comment after getting a world championship gold medal is that she’s unhappy with her time. I’m conflicted weather or not I want to have a “pretty pissed off about 4th….won’t ever let that happen again….sob sob….throw a chair or something….gotta get back to work” attitude. Without any guilt or apology I think I’ll just enjoy my 4th place finish for now and look at it as progress because it was as good as I could muster on that day. What I didn’t know before Doha and know now is that attitude and expectations play a bigger role than I realized in swim meets with hundreds of countries attending so that’s what I’m going to think about between now and when I write another one of these blogs again.

Thanks for reading and thanks for all the well wishes you sent while I was competing. I got them all and they really meant a lot. Back to school for me now to write exams then back to Kelowna for Christmas break. As for the rest of the year we start heavy training again after Christmas break in Hawaii (yay) before taking the volume down for championship season. I’m going to have laser beam focus on Big 10s and NCAAs in March and will let the Summer take care of itself. I’ve learned that I will freak myself out if I think about Canadian meets and long course in general so I’m going to control what I can control and do my little bit helping Minnesota go for the 4-peat at Big 10 Championships.

Kierra Smith
Minneapolis, MN USA