COVER STORY: Victory lap
Mike Diering figures he can do all the important stuff he needs to do. That’s to say he drives, swims competitively and beats his friends on the often cutthroat road to Xbox supremacy.
It’s an honest admission from Diering, not a chest pumping display of arrogance, because he was born with a congenital amputation that stunted the growth of his left arm. As a result, questions of what he can and cannot do have become rather commonplace for the 21-year-old member of North Vancouver’s CHENA Swim Club.
“The doctors don’t know why there were no other complications,” says Diering, with an admirably comfortable shrug.
“So, I just never learned to do things differently, I just learned them this way.”
Diering was five years old when he first started swimming and it didn’t take long for the youngster to begin taking his aquatic life seriously. Within three years, he was swimming competitively. But like many kids, he stopped after a while to try other things.
For fitness reasons — today Diering cuts a lean, athletic blonde-haired figure — he kept close to the pool. But his talents began to draw some attention. About four years ago, bolstered by encouragement from friends and staff at North Shore rec centres, Diering checked out a CHENA practice. Soon after, he was a member.
CHENA, formed in 1980 after the Lions Gate and Mount Seymour swim teams amalgamated, is a full service swim club with a strong competitive focus, offering a range of programming for swimmers of various ages. Some join simply to stay fit, some join to train for competitions.
Diering is of the latter group. And, explains the former Windsor secondary school student, such a choice isn’t a commitment for the faint of heart. Last semester — Diering studies part time at the University of British Columbia, where he majors in mining engineering — a typical week consisted of routine 5:30 a.m. wake-ups, class, practices, gym sessions, late-night library visits and part-time coaching duties. All told, he spent 14 hours in the pool each week, while logging another four in the gym.
“That’s pretty much how it went,” says Diering, with a laugh.
“It was the hardest semester of my life. It was stressful but being so busy is worth it. When I’m not, I miss having things to do and work toward.”
If having a goal is a key motivational piece to Diering’s balancing-act days, then the target of the next few months might register as the most important in his athletic career.
On March 30, the Olympic and Paralympic trials for this summer’s event in London, England begin. Diering is eyeing one of the coveted spots in the 50-metre freestyle heat. His race is scheduled for April 5 and, according to Diering’s coach Darryl Rudolf, there’s a bit of work to be done between now and then.
For a paralympian competing in Diering’s discipline, the standard time for Olympic qualifying is 27.11 seconds. Currently, Diering’s clocking between 27.73 and 27.72 seconds per attempt.
“He pushes. He works really hard. But he’s got to take six-tenths of a second off for the 50 metres. It’s quite a bit but I think he can improve by more than a second-and-a-half. He can get below 27 seconds,” says Rudolf, who himself missed the 2008 Beijing Olympics by only two-tenths of a second.
“It’s all over so fast, you have to be ready to go no matter what. And we put that onus on him all the time.”
And if the chance to don a Maple Leaf on one of the world’s largest athletic stages isn’t enough, adds Rudolf, Diering’s got some added in-pool motivation.
“He’s 21 and swims with our younger group,” says Rudolf.
“They’re between 13 and 15 years old, so he’s done well managing that and making sure they don’t beat him.”
While Diering is the only CHENA swimmer taking a run at this year’s Paralympics, there are five other swimmers, ranging in age from 15 to 17 years old, with their sights locked on an Olympic appearance in the summer.
Patrick Paradis, CHENA head coach, says he’s looking forward to his team getting an all-important taste of high-level competition. The average age of a male Olympian is 26 and for females its 24, he adds. His squad is much younger but Paradis believes a glimpse at the big time is a good way to “kick start [one’s] senior swimming experience.”
“For all six of the swimmers, this will be their first try. I had the fortune of being the assistant coach with the Hamilton Aquatic Club and we sent 11 rookies to Montreal [for the 2008 Olympic trials],” says Paradis.
“What they got out of that was so positive. That’s what I want for these guys. They’re talented now but at the physical level they’re at a disadvantage. But they’ll grow.”
But how much time he’ll have to watch and help shape that development, at least with Diering, may be running out. After the Olympics, Diering says he’s planning to retire from competitive swimming to focus on his studies and plot his future in the mining industry.
He’s yet to decide what aspect of mining interests him most as it’s a career that offers a host of potential specialties, Diering notes.
But no matter what that choice ends up being, Diering stresses, he’ll never stray too far from the pool. He’s had too much fun and learned too many lessons for that.
“Swimming is something competitive and self-improving. The harder you work, the better it gets. It’s the kind of thing where you always learn from your mistakes. You learn to trust yourself and improve,” he says.
“After practice, going to school and writing a test feels like a piece of cake.”