Tillsonburg swimmer Tyson MacDonald came home from Lima, Peru with some gold… and silver… and bronze.
MacDonald, 22, won a full set of medals at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, August 25th-31st swimming in four events including gold in his 100m backstroke, silver in 200m IM and bronze in 200m freestyle. He was also fourth in 100m breaststroke.
“I was pulling good swims in the morning, getting lanes in finals and then dropping more time at night to move into medal positions,” said MacDonald, admitting he was ‘beyond surprised’ and very pleased with the final results.
“I think pretty much every morning swim I had, it was a good starting point. Then it was building confidence off of that.”
He was then able to review and improve tactical parts of the race like stroke rates, splits, and reaction times with the coaching staff.
“That was the key to going even faster at night.”
Instead of easy morning swims, knowing he was ranked Top 6 in his events and the Top 8 would advance to finals, he made the decision to swim in preliminary rounds as if they were finals.
“I was going right off the hop.”
The Canadians also had the only entry in S14 relay, which was held in time trial format.
“In that process we shattered the Canadian record for Mixed S14 Relay and we were 1.13 seconds off of the world record in that event. We just missed the world record! We had no idea what it was going in, we had no expectations of breaking that. The goal was just to set a new national mark. So that in itself was really exciting, knowing it’s potentially within striking distance, perhaps in 2020 depending on the results of April Trials, or even looking ahead to World Championships in 2021.”
Due to a fluke in scheduling, he was the only swimmer in his first qualifying race (100m backstroke).
“I just went and swam and ended up putting up a solid time. It was something new for me, but it was also exciting at the same time, taking in all the sights and sounds of that particular race.”
Going into the finals, he knew he would be ‘fighting’ for medals, but at the same time he was not focused on medals.
“I didn’t dive into it deeply at all. I just kind of had that mindset that I’ve got a lane, I’ve got a shot to try to achieve a medal. I was more focused on race tactics, resting, recovering and controlling what I could control.”
MacDonald raced five of his seven days at the ParaPan-Am Games, and during his time in Lima he did not have time to visit other sport venues. After being bused from the Athlete’s Village to the pool, he did warmups, prepared for the race, swam, warmed down and headed back to the village.
“It became very routine.”
Part of that routine included time in the Team Canada Tent which featured recovery stations, couches, food and beverages, entertainment (video and board games), as well as screens with live feeds of the ParaPan-Am Games.
“I tried to spend as much time as I could in the tent and I tried to take in some of the other sports. It’s incredible what our other Canadian athletes were achieving. The ParaPan-Am Games, it goes beyond just your own individual sport. It’s really exciting to be part of it.”
The magnitude of his accomplishment – winning medals at the international level – really hit home for MacDonald on the podium. He was asked in a post-race interview, ‘how does it make you feel?’ And the first thing that came to mind, ‘I’ve just put my small town of 16,000 people on the map by achieving podium finishes at major international games.’
“Even just saying those words, it’s almost unbelievable that that has occurred. People always said, ‘where did you say you were from?’ Tillsonburg.”
It was an emotional moment on the podium listening to O Canada after winning gold in 100m backstroke.
“Tears? Yeah, there sure was,” he laughed. “I was thinking back to my mom, my grandma, and they were all back at home. Just thinking of all the things that they had done to support me over the years to get me to this point. You get that flush of emotion, that’s your first instinct to shed a few tears and just be proud of that moment.
“And just take it all in. All of the athletes there, not just the Canadians, we were all treated like celebrities by the locals. The Peruvian people were just ecstatic that the Pan Am and ParaPan-Am Games had come to Peru. They put on an amazing show, they wanted the best of everything for the athletes… and they did a fantastic job for sure.
“The venues that were built for the Pan Am and ParaPan-Am Games, they were first fully accessible venues in all of Peru. They’re going to re-use the apartments in the athlete’s village for housing, especially for those with limited mobility. So that’s fantastic.”
There were areas of Lima, he said, where conditions were “very rough” and a lot of the sights and sounds were new to MacDonald.
“It was very eye-opening just going back and forth from the village to the venue, it really opens your eyes as to how lucky you are to be Canadian and live in Canada.”
While in Peru, he was able to stay in touch with his family through the internet.
“I was messaging my mom on a daily basis, messaging my coaches on a daily basis. There was a flood of congratulations and support coming through the entire time I was there. I would take a quick read through,” he said, noting he was still reading messages a week later.
“I want to say thank you to everybody who has supported me over the last 10-or-so months, everyone involved in getting me to Melbourne in February, cheering me on into Trials and post-Trials leading up to the Games, during the Games, after the Games. There is so much love and support within our community. It’s very overwhelming at times, but it’s also great that we are such a small-knit community that comes together to support our own, that’s for sure.”
Even though he was not able to respond as quick as he wanted while at the Games, he appreciated all of the support.
“I had to stay focused on performance, but it was great to know that there was so much love and support coming to me from home.”
MacDonald’s new target is the April Trials in Toronto where he will try to qualify for the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo.
He already has a time that would achieve Paralympic qualification, but he will need to swim at that pace again at the Canadian Trials.
“Just knowing that I have the performance in me, it takes a little bit of the pressure off. At the same time it’s very encouraging. I can set my goals higher now and work towards the ultimate goal of making the Paralympics next summer.”
His primary objective is qualifying in 100m backstroke. MacDonald chuckles thinking back to his younger Age Group days with SWA and in Brantford when he was committed to freestyle.
“Now there’s a turn of the tide. I’ve always done backstroke, and I’ve always enjoyed backstroke, but now it seems to be at that the forefront of my agenda and gameplan going forward. The most important part is, I love what I’m doing. I’m having so much fun competing and representing my town and my club… I couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing now.”
MacDonald started his fifth year at Wilfrid Laurier in September, and he will be competing in the university swimming circuit. After that season winds down in February, he will have some time to rest ‘a little bit’ before training hard 5-6 weeks before tapering for Trials in April.
“And we’ll see what the outcome of that is in April,” he said.
The international window of opportunity opened for MacDonald earlier this year when he received his S14 classification.
“Coming into para swimming and getting that segment of my career settled and figured out, that for me took a lot of courage. I’ve known about para swimming for probably over 10 years now and I’ve known there’s been this category for athletes intellectual impairments. For me, it was overcoming that stigma of being ‘in a category’ and racing against swimmers who are also facing similar struggles. At first I didn’t want to be separated into that sort of thing. That’s why it took so long to pursue para swimming. I always said ‘I’m doing well in Age Group swimming, I might as well do it…’ I think, over time, the stigma of mental illness is slowly being broken as it gets talked about more often and is better funded, and I think it’s the same with para sports.”
After learning what is available in terms of para swimming resources, and what Swim Canada is able to do for its athletes, he said it was time to accept it.
“I’m definitely glad I was able to recognize that it’s not a bad thing. It’s an amazing thing. The opportunities are truly endless.”