Pandemic to Podium: Return to Sport at CSIO (Part 3: Genevieve Sasseville & Meena Sharif)

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Canadian Sport Institute Ontario believes in the power of sport, and its’ globally unifying principles. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been forced to adapt to a new normal and come together to support one-another in a variety of ways. This 4-part article series, written by award-winning sport journalist David Grossman, was designed to highlight and showcase our resilient athletes, and the practitioners who were instrumental in their return to sport.

 

“Training six days a week – and then it all stopped. It was like I had hit a brick wall, a real shock. It was, like, over.”

- Genevieve Sasseville   

 

By David Grossman

 

Some believe it might just be the early sign of greatness. There are others who have seen enough and need no manifestation.

Genevieve Sasseville has mastered a great deal of the intellectual details and nuances of an aspiring athlete. Young, intelligent and proficient, this outstanding swimmer also recognizes the best has yet to come.

Skilled, knowledgeable and competent at one of the toughest strokes of the sport, the butterfly, Sasseville has already experienced the international competitive scene as a World Junior medallist. She’s ambitious and, in many ways, voracious for the next competition.

Genevieve Sasseville performing the butterfly stroke. Photo: Chatham-Kent Sports Network

For a good part of 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic, things have been very challenging and troublesome for many. That includes Sasseville.

These days, this adept and wise person continues to look for good fortune and remains hopeful that she’ll have what it takes to be on Canada’s Olympic team for the 2024 Games in Paris, a city known for its café culture and designer boutiques.

That’s her intention. She knows it won’t be easy, harder in many ways, but she is persistent. Fixated on the road ahead, she continues her training. Things are looking quite propitious for this gifted individual.

“The break from hard training (because of Covid-19) was tough at the beginning,” said Sasseville, who had spent a considerable amount of time in the water improving her stroke, speed and technique. “Training six days a week – and then it all stopped. It was like I had hit a brick wall, a real shock. It was, like, over.”

Not so. In fact, far from over for her. A break, maybe.

On March 12, Sasseville was at the Toronto Pan Centre pool. A day later, the pool was closed. Two days later, Sasseville was home – and stayed there for almost five months.

“I didn’t know what to do, there was confusion, my routine was gone – suddenly stopped,” she recalled. “At first, it was disappointing. In time, the break from training made me more excited about returning. It was all so very strange.”

Sasseville didn’t give up hope. She turned to land training and, thanks to help from her father, was quite fortunate to benefit from a makeshift pool set up in the family garage. It was a brilliant initiative that allowed her to practice and, with a belt affixed to her waist, be conjoined to the pool. In short, she was moving, but not going anywhere.

Also waiting to offer assistance was Meena Sharif, a Strength & Conditioning coach at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO), which is located in the same facility at the Toronto Pan Am Centre.

“First time we met, (Sharif) was so friendly, knowledgeable and willing to help me,” said Sasseville. “I was very fortunate. It was like a spark was lit. (Sharif) has definitely contributed to my success.”

Now, back in the Olympic-size pool, Sasseville has benefitted enormously from the programs, sessions, workouts and out-of-water skills put forward by Sharif.

“Her demeanour, I could see it in the way she was always asking for advice on how to improve in, and out of, the water,” said Sharif. She was willing to do the work. The communication, so very important, was working between us and our relationship was strong.”

Even Sharif thinks the delay, being shut down from March to June, has helped younger athletes, like Sasseville.

“I really think it’s opened the door to new ways of training, improving strength, nutrition  and mental status,” said Sharif, who first had contact with Sasseville in 2018, while working with the Ontario Swim Academy, an initiative of Swim Ontario that recognizes the next generation of proficient athletes.

Sasseville is from Chatham, a southwestern Ontario community that boasts notable sports celebrities. They include baseball Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, championship figure skater Shae-Lynn Bourne, Olympians Doug Anakin (bobsled) and Courtney Babock (distance runner) as well as a slew of professional hockey players.

There’s room for a swimmer in this group – and that spot may very well be taken by Sasseville.

At the age of six, Sasseville decided it was time to switch from dance lessons and devote her strength and vitality to swimming. It’s a sport, competitive for many. Others go the recreational route. It’s also among the most popular sports in North America.

“As a little girl, I remember the swim lessons, joining the Chatham Pool Sharks club and it was so exciting,” said Sasseville. “I was a nervous swimmer, always so anxious. I became a water baby.”

Things intensified quickly. Maybe it was her family’s backyard swimming pool or taking to the lake at her family’s cottage in Haliburton. In grade 8, then a student at the former John N. Given Public School, Sasseville went to a Team Ontario swim camp in Florida. It may very well have been her first huge step to the big world of competitive swimming.

Things became serious at age 15, when she was invited to the Ontario Swim Academy in Toronto – a move that also required her to live with family members. It was a bold move, a teenager leaving home, but one she was eager and ready to make.

Success and many memorable events took over.

Among the achievements, was a gold medal at the 2017 Junior Nationals in Toronto. That same year, she won two gold medals, including a personal best time record, at the Canada Games in Winnipeg. Benefitting from sound coaching, lots of hard work and a thirst for prosperity, the surge of success continued for Sasseville.

Two years later, in 2019, there was a podium finish in Japan at a major meet in Sagamihara, about one hour from Tokyo. That same year, she was off to Hungary. She left with two medals, as a member of Canadian relay teams at the World Junior championships in Budapest. It was there that she recorded her personal best time of 59.76 seconds in the 100-metre butterfly.

An honors academic student, she’s prepping to align with the stars. Sasseville is interested in shuffling off to study and swim in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, one of the world’s leading private research universities.

“The Ontario Swim Academy plays an important role for high performance development and (Sasseville) fit right in,” said Dean Boles, Chief Executive Officer for Swim Ontario. “She works very hard, ia a leader, just a wonderful person and the epitome of what a coach looks for. Combine her strength, determination and people who support her, and you have a great swimmer.”

Sharif knows the commitment by Sasseville has had huge rewards.

As for Sasseville, someone who understands others, builds healthy relationships and owns an empathy for appreciation, she’s well on her way to beating a pandemic that stands in the way of her podium goals.

 

-END-

  David Grossman is a veteran award-winning Journalist, Broadcaster with some of   Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

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