Martha McCabe defied the odds by making Canada’s national swim team despite a fractured collarbone that prevented her from using her arms in training.
With 20 metres left in the race, Martha McCabe’s arms quit working.
“My arms were just done,” she said, recalling her all-important 200-metre breaststroke race to make the national team. “I was just throwing them in front of me and trying to get to the wall with my kick.”
McCabe knew she had to touch the end of the pool in no worse than third place to make the team and represent Canada at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, July 23 to Aug 4.
With a fifth-place finish at the London Olympics – Canada’s best in the 200-metre breaststroke – the team trials should have been a formality for McCabe. But that race in Victoria in April was unlike any the 24-year old from Toronto had ever done.
In the four months prior, she hadn’t swum that far, ever, or done any breaststroke turns. She hadn’t lifted any weights; she couldn’t even lift her own arms above her head.
A stress fracture in her right collarbone had made normal training impossible. Athletes like McCabe don’t take to rest very well so the injury definitely didn’t stop her training.
But it made for some pretty odd scenes at the University of Toronto pool, where coach Ben Titley runs Canada’s national swim program in Toronto.
He attached a belt to the end of a bungee cord and attached the other end to a wooden crutch. With that contraption, he ran down the side of the pool pulling McCabe along as she kicked so she could keep the sensation of moving through the water at something approaching race pace.
And, because there’s a limit to how long Titley could reasonably be expected to keep that up, she spent hours with a floating foam noodle tucked under her arms so she could work on her kick without moving her arms.
“From (late) December through April she did literally zero work on her arms,” Titley said. “It would be like a marathon runner training for a marathon in a wheelchair using his arms only and then all of a sudden going to run a marathon on his legs.”
Her modified training plan didn’t just leave her with a weakened body, it took out a chunk of her confidence as well.
“I usually go in (a race) thinking, ‘I’m going to win this,’” McCabe said. “This time it was, ‘I have nothing to lose, I’m going to give it my all because that’s what I’ve been doing for the past four months.’”
For most of the race, things went surprisingly well. At one point she was neck and neck with fellow Olympian Tera Van Beilen.
“With 25 metres left in the race I was actually winning and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I could actually win after all this.’ And with 20 metres to go, I’ve never felt that feeling in my arms before,” McCabe said.
Van Beilen touched the wall first, followed by Kierra Smith and then, in the very last spot to make the team, came McCabe.
“When I touched the wall I was so happy just because I knew I had given every single thing I possibly could have from the moment I got injured to then. I wasn’t even sure if I was on the team then but I felt happy because I knew there was nothing more that I could have done.”
Her time of 2:27 was well off her best performance of 2:23 in the 2012 London Games finals.
Still, it’s better than Titley expected.
“I don’t know of any other swimmer, and I’ve coached world record holders and world champions, who would be able to kick along with a snorkel or a noodle for four months and still make a major games team. It’s a testament to Martha,” he said.
But, of course, making the team is just the first step. The real goal McCabe has set is to come home with a medal and, for any chance at that, she’ll need her arms to go the distance.
In an attempt to fast track her way back into shape, now that her injury is mostly behind her, she went to Spain to train with the world record holder Rikke Moeller Pedersen. The Danish swimmer broke American Rebecca Soni’s record last summer.
McCabe is still skipping chin-ups and being careful about the volume of swimming she does but she’s on her way back to form, Titley said.
“She’s done more breaststroke in the last three days than she would have done in the entire three months leading into the trials,” he said after a pool session last week.
Story by Kerry Gillespie for the Toronto Star | TheStar.com