Dal swimmer poised for Olympics

David Sharpe may be Nova Scotia's first male Olympic swimmer

- April 24, 2012

David Sharpe
David Sharpe

From the time that he was 10 years old, Dal swimmer David Sharpe wanted to be Olympian.

This summer, he’s poised to get his chance.

At the Canadian Olympic trials in Montreal last month, Mr. Sharpe pulled off a come-from-behind victory in his signature event, the 200-metre butterfly. The win earned him a nomination to the Canadian Olympic team – but he won’t learn for sure if he’s on the team until later this year.

If his nomination is confirmed, he’ll be the first Nova Scotian swimmer to compete in the Olympics since 1984, and the first male swimmer ever from the province. He’ll also be the first Dal Tiger to compete in the Olympics while still a student.

“It’s the biggest meet there is,” says Mr. Sharpe, who grew up swimming in the Dalplex pool as part of the Halifax Trojans swim club. “It’s sort of the final step in terms of new experiences, other than how you perform of course. But in terms of going to competitions, it doesn’t get any bigger."

Overcoming the trials

His time at the Olympic trials, 1:58.81, set the Nova Scotia record. He entered his final race, though, ranked last among the eight swimmers after what he calls a “terrible” qualifying heat, by his standards. His nerves were getting the better of him.

“It was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been…I was thinking too much about what I was thinking and feeling, and not enough about the technical race. I had to calm myself down, make it about instinct.”

The next day, in finals, instinct prevailed.

“I knew on the last turn it was close, because I could see the guy beside me in lane seven, Zack [Chetrat], and I saw [Stefan] Hirniak in lane four, and we were all really close. But I wasn’t thinking, it was instinct: ‘go to the wall, drive, keep your head down.’”

On that final length, Mr. Sharpe—head down—gave it his all, his hand touching the wall .02 seconds ahead of Mr. Chetrat. He had earned himself a likely spot on the Canadian Olympic team – certainly, a cause for celebration.

But that’s not really Mr. Sharpe’s way.

“There wasn’t much emotion,” he confides. “When I touched the wall, the first thing I saw was my team celebrating. Then the next thing I saw was that I finished first. It wasn’t overwhelming; it was something I knew I could do. It was another race; my bigger ever, sure, but just one more step to where I want to go.”

Commitment to success

That’s not just confidence or modesty talking, though Mr. Sharpe demonstrates his fair share of both traits. It’s more that he approaches swimming with a clinician’s precision. There’s no doubt that he’s a science major as he walks you through a race; this is a young man who counts the strokes of his fellow swimmers when he’s scoping out the competition, and who picks apart every possible way he can improve his time.

He’s been swimming competitively since he was 7, and this past year—his third with the Tigers—he cut back almost all of his studies to focus on his training regimen. To call it intense would be an understatement: 18 hours in the pool each week, along with two dry-land sessions, one hour on weights and one massage session.

“And a lot of naps to recover,” he adds. “As much as the practices are important, you need to let your body recover from that much activity.”

He still swam with the Tigers this year too, winning gold in the 200-metre butterfly at the CIS championships plus adding two bronzes in the 50-metre backstroke and 100-metre butterfly. But he’s spending most of his time working with Trojans coach Aaron Maszko on his customized, Olympics-focused training regimen.

That’s fine with Tigers coach David Fry, who’s known Mr. Sharpe for close to a decade and couldn’t be more proud of him.

 “It’s a tremendous accomplishment,” he says. “This is a young man whose commitment to the sport has never been in question. He can identify issues, but doesn’t shelve or forget them – he lives them day-to-day, and is wonderful at reminding himself constantly of the things he has to do to get better. We’re all so proud of David and excited for him.”

That said, Mr. Sharpe still makes some time in his schedule to work with Mr. Fry and the Dal Tigers.

“It’s where my friends are. It keeps me sane: you can only do so many practices by yourself, and having a team there is crucial to keep you motivated.”

Looking ahead to London

In years’ past, winning your race at the Olympic trials would lock in your place on the national team. This year, though, the International Olympic Committee has capped the total number of swimmers from all countries at 900. Because Mr. Sharpe fell short of the Olympic qualifying time (1:56:86), he has to wait until qualification ends on July 3 to know, for certain, if there’s room for him on the roster.

“I just keep preparing in the exact same way as if I was on the Olympic team for certain,” he says, adding that the team is fairly confident that he’ll be able to compete in London.

Later this month, he leaves for Arizona to train with the team. While in the U.S., he’ll be seeking out meets to compete in to improve his time; if he reaches that Olympic qualifying time in competition, he locks in his spot. One his Olympian status is confirmed, he’ll leave for Italy with the team for two-and-a-half weeks of prep work in July.

As for performing in London, he’s approaching that question with the same clinical, step-by-step approach with which he treats his entire swimming career.

“As far as winning a medal, that’s like three or four steps away,” he explains. “The first step would be breaking the Canadian record: that would put me right on the edge of making semi-finals at the Olympics. I just have to go into meets expecting to break that record. And even if I don’t, I have to move closer to it, second by second.”

No matter what happens, the opportunity to represent Dalhousie and Nova Scotia is a huge point of pride for him.

“I used to be just like those kids,” he said, pointing out the young swimmers practing in the Dalplex pool. “Many of the things I’ve done, I’ve been one of the first guys from Nova Scotia to do. Hopefully they can watch me and see that it’s possible to be successful swimming here in Nova Scotia.”


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