Kwantlen student talks about trying out for the London Paralympic Games

Kyle McMahon concentrates on training for 2016 Paralympics.

By Steven Maisey

Kyle McMahon climbs slowly up onto the starting blocks at the City Centre Aquatic Complex in Coquitlam. Around him there is a swarm of people. Coaches are frantically shouting out last-minute instructions to their swimmers. Competitors are anxiously waiting their turn in the water. Officials are carefully observing the swimmers. Parents are cheering on their sons or daughters. It is a cool, brisk day outside, but inside, on the pool deck, the humidity is stifling. The smell of chlorine, strong already, is intensified.

A sprinter in the pool, McMahon specializes in the breaststroke, butterfly and individual medley, swimming the 50, 100 and 200 metre events. (Photo courtesy Rory Gibbons)

McMahon, 21-years-old, stands, hardly twitching a muscle, his eyes firmly fixed on the water in front of him. He is the picture of calmness and focus, even with the chaos that surrounds him.

The whistle tells the swimmers it is time. They get into the starting position. The clock behind them reads 12:10 p.m. The time clock reads 0:00:00. McMahon hardly notices. He says he rarely notices the time; to do so would only distract him from his focus and goal; to go fast.

There’s a loud honk, and McMahon bursts off the blocks. Immediately, coaches begin yelling instructions to their swimmers. Limbs flail and crash with force into the water causing the water to violently splash up the side of the pool and onto your feet. In the lane closest to the right side of the pool, McMahon swims. His arms powerfully thrust into the water, his feet kick through the water at an amazing rate. Water crashes up the side onto the pool deck, like with all the other swimmers, but McMahon’s swim seems almost effortless. His limbs move at a frantic pace, but his body glides through the water. The large clock that was positioned behind the swimmers as they stood on the blocks now reads 12:14 p.m. The race is over.

McMahon is a remarkable athlete, a force in the pool, constructed from natural talent, training and sports science. He is broad shouldered and broad chested, with bulging forearms, the picture of a physically powerful human being. It’s that powerful build that lets him glide through the chlorine-filled water of a pool so fast and effortlessly.

McMahon has mild cerebral palsy. He was four-years-old, riding down the highway in a car with his parents from Deese Lake home to Burns Lake during the Christmas season in 1995, when their car was crashed into from behind. The seatbelt McMahon was wearing snapped, and he was violently propelled from the back seat of the car into the front windshield. The accident put McMahon in a two-week coma. He suffered brain injuries from the crash and was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy.

“I had to learn how to walk, talk, eat and dress myself again during my time at B.C. Children’s Hospital and Sunny Hills Hospital,” McMahon says. “It was a challenge just to go onto the next thing, and to keep getting better and better.”

At one point, McMahon was hooked up to an x-ray machine, as he was learning how to eat again. As he ate, he, along with his doctors, was able to watch the screen on the x-ray machine. He would watch as the food he was eating went down his esophagus. It was not something McMahon particularly enjoyed.

Even as a four-year-old, McMahon understood the struggle ahead of him. He would complete one of the goals set for him, but then have to start the second step of the process right away. There was no time to step back and reflect on what he had accomplished. He started swimming as part of his physiotherapy routine to help with his balance and coordination. Quickly, he fell in love with the sport.

McMahon liked the competition and began to race at the local swim club in Prince George, and then for the Prince George Barracudas. Since graduating high school in 2009, he has spent time with Island Swimming, in Victoria, and the past two years with the Surrey Knights swim club. McMahon also attends Kwantlen Polytechnic University as a part-time student. He hopes to obtain a bachelors degree in Information Technology.

A sprinter in the pool, McMahon specializes in the breaststroke, butterfly and individual medley, swimming the 50, 100 and 200 metre events

McMahon’s swimming has taken him to the precipice of greatness. He has represented Canada at international swim meets across the world, including the 2010 IPC Swimming World Championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

McMahon’s greatness in the water was on full display in March at the Paralympic trials for the 2012 Paralympic Summers Games in London, England.

He represented the Surrey Knights swim club at the London trials. “It was very cool, on my 21st birthday, it was a Saturday night and it was called swimming night in Canada, and at the trials I raced in the 50m butterfly, won a gold medal and broke a Canadian record,” McMahon says. “All on my birthday.”

McMahon had no idea how fast he had raced, nor did he know that he broke a Canadian record during that race. In fact, the celebration of breaking the Canadian record was short-lived. Even though he set a Canadian record with a time of 36:68 in the 50m Butterfly, he didn’t qualify for the London Games. While setting a record was great, McMahon had “bigger fish to fry,” and he hadn’t accomplished what he wanted. It was disappointing moment for McMahon, even though he’d accomplished something so great. McMahon doesn’t dwell on failures often says McMahon’s swim coach for the Surrey Knights, Reg Shaw, but moving past his missed opportunity took a while.

Shaw says that the disappointment was noticeable in McMahon’s training. He would come to the pool and would go through the motions, instead of completely committing to training. His focus wasn’t 100 percent on swimming and training. “Kyle went from such a high in breaking the Canadian record, to such a low,” Shaw says.

McMahon’s disappointment was due to the effort that he puts into his craft. McMahon is in the pool training for at least two hours-per-day, five days-per-week. During his sessions in the pool, Shaw says that the focus is on increasing McMahon’s stroke rate. To increase his stroke rate, McMahon first trains aerobically, swimming 25-30 km’s per week. Then he trains to increase his flexibility. Finally, McMahon and Shaw work together to increase his stroke rate.

Stroke rate is the number of strokes a swimmer makes per minute. Stroke rate along with stroke length are important in swimming because combining a long stroke length with a high stroke rate equals more velocity, which equals faster times for swimmers.

Along with his training sessions in the pool, McMahon also does an hour of yoga every week, and at least one hour every week at Innovative Fitness in Langley. McMahon also regularly undergoes stress tests and blood lactate tests; he meets, often, with a sports physiologist, and monitors his sleeps patterns, which he sends daily to Shaw. This part of the training is critical to his success Shaw says because of where he’s at in his development.

The level that McMahon swims at, improving even a miniscule amount takes tremendous effort and commitment. Shaw says that it’s no longer about talent, or using the correct technique because all swimmers at McMahon’s level have the talent and technique. For McMahon, it is about finding the tiny flaw and working endlessly to gain a tiny improvement.

“Kyle is at the stage where you won’t see an improvement on talent alone. The stage he’s at to increase his stroke rate by one percent is challenging, but Kyle is committed to the process, which is very important,” Shaw says.

It is the commitment and passion that drives McMahon. He would like nothing more than to make the Canadian team for the 2016 Paralympic Summer Games in Rio and compete for Canada.

Unfortunately, for McMahon, unless his friends and family across Canada pay for a ticket to Rio there’s only a slim chance of them watching him perform.

According to bellmediapr.ca, the Olympic broadcast media consortium that includes, CTV, TSN and Sportsnet offered only an hour recap show of the 2012 Paralympics each day. The London Olympics received 22 hours daily of coverage, and overall nearly 10 times the amount of total coverage than that of the Paralympics.

“The coverage of the Paralympics was brutal and disheartening,” Shaw says. “At the games you had Canadian athletes being interviewed by Italian reporters. There is no comprehension of the ability of these athletes.”

Shaw says that a swim meet for para-athletes in Europe could be watched by as many as 17,000 live spectators, but in Canada those meets are lucky to get 1,000, a problem considering Canada is set to host the 2013 Paralympic Swimming World Championships.

McMahon just wants the opportunity to share his potential accomplishments with friends and family, including his greatest influence, his grandfather. McMahon lives with his grandfather and says that his grandfather is the backbone of his support system. He drives McMahon to swim practice, gets dinner on the table, makes sure he is well taken care of and is there to cheer him on at the swim meets

McMahon trains hard, not only to improve as an athlete, but also to overcome his limitations and disability. He is extremely proud to be able to represent Canada, and would love for his friends and family to be able to watch him compete and race his heart out for his country.

But McMahon won’t concentrate on campaigning for greater coverage for all athletes like him. He just wants to continue to get better in the pool, to continue to get faster and to let his swimming do the talking for him.

“On really hard training days you just have to remember why you swim, it’s not about the glory, it’s about how much you love to swim and race fast, and compete for your country and home town,” McMahon says.

So McMahon will continue to compete at swim meets. Among the throngs of people that stand and sit poolside, through all the shouting of instructions from coaches, and the cheers of parents and friends, in the utter chaos that lines the pool deck of any swim meet, McMahon will step up to the starting blocks. Once on that starting block McMahon will barely twitch, he will get what he calls tunnel vision, and all that he will be thinking about is swimming fast because that is what he does.

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