TORONTO — When George Hodgson lined up at the highest spot at the podium in Stockholm 1912, even being the only Canadian at the event, he started a series of remarkable, surprising, and inspirational stories for swimming Canada at the Olympic Games.
While 1984, Alex Baumann was able to top the podium even after family tragedies and injuries, the low expectations ended up being tales for Mark Tewksbury’s record-breaking gold performance in Barcelona eight years later.
Besides that, Canada’s only medalist in 2008 was the 19-year old Ryan Cochrane after
Overall, Canada totals 49 swimming medals, which are divided into nine gold, 15 silver, and 26 bronze. While all of them are a solid part of Canadian swimming history, Hayden’s unexpected bronze in 2012 was the most relevant triumph for at the time 15-year-old Carson Olafson.
The Canadian swimmer had in Hayden a career
“He (Hayden) swam for the same small club town — Chilliwack Spartans — that I did when he was younger. So I always saw his name on the record board, he had a big banner at our little poll, and he was coached by Tom (Johnson) as well. There are just a lot of parallels, he was always my hero when I was young,” Olafson said.
For Tom Johnson, a long-time swimming head coach, there are more similarities between them.
“He (Brent Hayden) was only interested in being perfect every day and I think Carson (Olafson) is very technically oriented and very similar in that way,” he said. “The other thing that I really like about Carson is that he’s a warrior … He’s very courageous in his racing. I think that is very similar to what Brent was like.”
Johnson has a reason why he described Olafson as a warrior.
Olafson suffered his first career injury (broken wrist) in a bicycle accident in 2017 with the Canadian Swimming Trials for the 2017 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary over six weeks away.
“For the first couple of days of that injury I was pretty down with myself, pretty depressed,” said the 22-year-old swimmer.
Decades of coaching experience helped Johnson in his support to Olafson’s rehab.
“We encouraged him and worked with him to trust the process and to stay engaged and do not give up. As a result, we tried very many different things,” said Johnson. “There’s no straight line and there’s no one way to do (a) thing. Anything is possible if you believe in yourself.”
By trying very different new things, he means, for instance, swimming only with one arm and also just legs (for almost 40 weekly kilometres). For Olafson, his improvement goes beyond physical skills, “It taught me how much you can adapt to certain challenges and how to overcome them.”
More than that, despite the natural insecurity after an injury, all the perseverance during the rehab rewarded Olafson with the qualification for Canada’s team who was heading to Budapest.
Actually, being surrounded by uncertainties ended up being a positive thing for him.
“It was pretty cool to go to the Trials afterwards, and no one was expecting anything from me, but I just do super well and everyone is surprised,” he said.
Two years later, in the 2019 Canadian Swimming Trials for the World Championship, whereas no injury challenged Olafson, he had another worthwhile performance, making the team for both the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle.
By reaching this year’s most significant swimming competition, the Chilliwack, British Columbia native may say he is one step closer to his main career aspiration.
“My dream and goal (are an) Olympic final,” he said. “It means you’ve reached the pinnacle of the sport. You’re almost a master of your sport, that you’ve worked hours and thousands of hours on.”
Olafson has never been to the Olympic Games. And what does he need to achieve that?
“You just have to be excited for it, not nervous … I’m not going to put any expectations on myself. I’m just (going to) go to the Olympic Trials, have the most fun, get myself the best chance I have, and see what happens. That’s how I do best,” he said.
For Johnson, the athlete firstly needs to improve in the “belief system” and really trust himself, as he did in this year’s Trials, as the coach described.
Olafson will try to avoid the usually inevitable expectation approaching the Summer Olympics, which would insert him in an already-known scenario. It was with low expectations that Olafson recovery on time and in shape for Budapest in 2017.
It was, too, with low expectations that Canada has written a unique chapter in the history of the Olympic Games thus far.