The wake is sleek and even as it breaks from James Dergousoff’s swim cap and rolls towards the edges of the pool at the Grand Forks Aquatic Centre. The waves tumble rhythmically through the drainage grates around the edges as his lean frame slips through the water. Even alone, he makes the pool look crowded. He covers the 25-metre length with a strong push off the wall and just a handful of strokes, before he flips, pushes and repeats.
Dergousoff is a long way from the Tokyo Aquatics Centre – capacity 15,000 – where he was hoping to swim this summer as a member of the Canadian Olympic team, but a broad smile and a scraggily beard suggest he’s quite happy to be home again, training in the same pool where he first raced more than 15 years ago.
“There’s nothing better than being home,” he said after his second practice in his childhood pool. “I’ve got to thank the staff and everyone involved for letting me use this body of water.”
Immediately upon learning that Canadian Trials and the 2020 Olympics were cancelled, Dergousoff got himself a wetsuit and came home to from North Vancouver, where he usually trains. His pool on the coast closed down due to COVID-19, but the 23-year-old who won bronze with his medley relay team at the 2015 Pan American Games hardly skipped a beat in his training after that late-March decision. His wake quickly began to break up the ice that still covered parts of Christina Lake in April. Still, he’s thankful to be back indoors now, but not just because of the cold.
A combination of skill and serenity
“The texture in the water is different,” Dergousoff said about his main observed difference between the lake and the pool – a remark only someone who swims dozens of kilometres per week would be able to describe. With his coach of 10 years, Patrick Paradis, Dergousoff has swum more than the circumference of the globe. It’s Dergousoff’s attention to how and what his body feels that the two try and exploit to get his slim frame to slice through the water with minimal disturbance.
“His sense of touch is just out of this world,” said Paradis, who remarked that when he first met Dergousoff, the young swimmer would want to touch people’s new jackets to feel the fabrics. The athlete can smell whether a pool uses chlorine or bromine. His sense of his surroundings is acute.
(When a photographer was waiting at the end of his training lane, for example, Dergousoff made sure to aim his flip-turn splashes away from the lens – courteous and evidently aware.)
That environmental sensitivity, both will say, informs how Dergousoff swims.
Where many of his competitors, some up to 20 kilograms heavier than him, would rather just shove the water out of the way, the Christina Lake swimmer prefers to just slip through.
“It’s more finesse, it’s artistic,” said Paradis.
“I love being very fluid and an artist,” said Dergousoff. “It’s methodical. The more we were looking at little critiques, to just make it more [fluid-dynamic], we moved away from the sloppiness.”
Paradis found Dergousoff a dozen years ago when he was still coaching in Ontario. Even then, the Boundary boy stood out in his skill and style. But as the two have worked together and developed into an elite team, Paradis has reminded his swimmer, “One in a million is still a lot of people on the planet.” That’s where Dergousoff’s attention to detail and compete level kick in, propelling him onto the world stage.
“He’s really just a pure guy that wants to win, but he wants everyone around him to do well at the same time,” Paradis said. “He doesn’t want to win if his competitors aren’t at their best either.”
Dergousoff felt that drive when he was eight years old. His relay team had swum one of the fastest races in the pool at the 2004 B.C. provincial meet and were bound for the podium. But, their awards were taken away from them because he and his teammates did not swim in the correct order. After tears, he said, he found something in himself.
“I think that was the moment when I was like, ‘You know what? I’m pretty good at this. This is fun,’” Dergousoff said.
Keeping it fun though, can be challenging when you’re a teenaged elite athlete and don’t get breaks from the four-year swimming cycle. By 2016, Dergousoff was feeling the burnout creep in. Through his teens, he was training for medleys, where a swimmer need to be explosive with the butterfly, zippy with the backstroke, driven with freestyle and effortlessly fast with the breaststroke. Being good at everything, it turns out, can be a challenge. So, after the 2016 Olympic trials, when he was still only 18 – young for a world’s best swimmer – he took a six-month break.
He traded his swim cap for a park ranger’s hat and went to work at Bowron Lakes Provincial Park. There, finding calmness and happiness was simple. “You make someone’s day when you give them toilet paper for the rest of the week,” he said of his job. “You see genuine smiles on people’s faces and that’s what makes me happy.”
At Bowron Lakes, Paradis said, he saw his pupil-turned-friend find an old inspiration.
“He had a little bit of solitude and did some meditation and just really rediscovered his passion and reason for why he did the sport and what he loved about it – reflecting back to when he was a kid,” Paradis said. When he did it for fun.
Dergousoff still has plans to go back to Bowron Lakes, but he’s got to knock out a goal first. “After the Olympics,” he said about going back to the park. “Whenever that comes, if it has to be in 2024, I’m okay with that.”
Though the games got postponed for at least a year, Dergousoff isn’t easing up on his training. He’s focussed on fine-tuning the first five metres off the wall – a fraction of a second in a race that can make all the difference. He’s added four inches to his vertical jump as a result.
“We were cooking really hot,” he said. “I was really prepared to break the Canadian record.”
If he was fast enough in March, he’s aiming to be record-beating now. And it’s the experience of taking a break at Bowron Lakes that Paradis credits for Dergousoff’s ability to now see the postponement of the Olympics as an opportunity.
“He just has the mentality of, ‘Look how much I improved in taking that six months off. If you give me another year, I’ll be so dangerous whenever it comes race time.”
Wherever the next competition is, Dergousoff will be ready to launch, and Paradis will have the same words he offers on race day, ready to tell him all he needs to know.
“You’ve earned the right to be amazing today. Go out and perform on your canvas.”