By Sean Fitz-Gerald
Ryerson swimmer Marie Claire Ross says she gets easily intimidated before a big swim meet and doesn’t believe she has the confidence to compete at a high level.
But Ross had no problem drowning her worries last weekend at the Ontario University Athletics swimming championships at U of T as she set four unofficial world records.
Ross, who is legally blind, having less than 10 per cent of her vision, established new world bests in the visually-impaired class, breaking her own records in the 50-metre butterfly, the 50-metre freestyle, the 100-metre butterfly and the 100-metre freestyle.
Ross won two medals at the OUAs, a silver and a bronze, and also finished fifth in the 5-metre freestyle. Her record-breaking results qualifies her for competition in three events at the CIAU national swimming championships being held this weekend at the University of Sherbrooke.
Yet despite all of Ross’ success she still gets nervous before competitions. “I get intimidated really easily — I have really low confidence. Instead of looking at all the people I’ve beat, I think, ‘Oh no, look at all the people who are faster than me,’” says Ross, 22, a fourth-year nutrition student.
Perhaps one reason Ross is always looking over her shoulder is because she comes from a large family — she has six brothers and sisters. The London, Ont. native lost 90 per cent of her eyesight when she was eight years old. Ross didn’t even begin swimming competitively until she was 15, after a neighbour, who is also blind, suggested she pick up the sport.
Ross says it didn’t take long for swimming to enthral her life. She worked part time and did a lot of fundraising just to save enough money to pay her membership at the local swim club. And when at the pool Ross swam in the water for hours on end, often missing dinner time with her family.
“I’d come home and dinner would be over. It just wasn’t possible for my mom and dad to be cooking all night long,” she says.
Ross’ dedication to her sport has not wavered over the last seven years. In 1996, in the Atlanta Paralympic Games, Ross set two world records and won six medals for Canada, including two golds. Even though Ross has already achieved phenomenal paralympic success, one of her long-term goals is to qualify for the Olympic team.
Last year was Ross’ first season competing against sighted swimmers. The Ryerson athlete uses the thick black line at the bottom of the pool to guide her when she swims. She also has to count her strokes to judge when she’s coming up to a wall.
“I think most swimmers look and have a sense of where they are, and I guess I just have different cues,” she says.
Ross became the first disabled athlete to qualify for the CIAU national swimming championships after she placed fifth in the 200-metre individual medley at the OUAs last year. Ross’ OUA performance this year is a tremendous improvement. She is the first Ryerson woman to make it to the CIAU since 1984.
The Toronto media picked up on Ross’ compelling story and turned the swimmer into a reluctant celebrity.
“Personally, I feel I did a lot better this year and I’m much more satisfied with everything that’s gone on as opposed to last year,” she says. “Still, I have gotten no media coverage, and I don’t mind a bit.”
Ross credits her teammates at Ryerson for much of her success. At the OUAs the Ryerson swim team wore Rams hats and Ross’ teammates chanted her name during her races and smothered her with hugs and kisses after her victories. Ross believes their support helped her achieve many of her university athletic goals.
“It’s really nice. But sometimes I just feel like, ‘How can I repay them?’ I have just as much respect for each one of them and I don’t know how to give that back.”
This is Ross’ final year at Ryerson. She has two years of CIAU eligibility left and hopes to continue her university swimming career at the university of British Columbia in September, where she plans to begin a Masters degree.
Ross is the only Ryerson swimmer to qualify for the CIAUs this weekend. The rest of the team will still make the trek to Sherbrooke, donning their Rams hats to cheer Ross on.