Mon, September 23, 2013

Russell a swimming survivor

Canuck tough in the face of family adversity

By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency


Sinead Russell swims the women's 100m backstroke heats at the Canadian Olympic swimming trials in Montreal, Que., March 28, 2012. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters)

MONTREAL - Minutes after qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics in the 100-metre backstroke Wednesday night, Sinead Russell was asked if it has been difficult to train and compete with all the distractions that have rocked her family in recent years.

“Not at all,” said Russell. “It’s made me tougher. What I’ve been through, it’s made me more determined to do what I do.”

Russell finished the 100 backstroke final in 1:00.45, placing second behind Julia Wilkinson of the Island Swimming Club in Victoria, who broke the one-minute mark for the first time in her career, hitting the touch pad at the Olympic pool in Montreal in 59.85 seconds. Both Wilkinson and Russell qualified for the London Games.

All high-performance athletes are survivors, having to overcome injuries, bad performances and other setbacks. But Russell is more of a survivor than most. What she and her family have gone through is something out of non-fiction best seller.

Sinead is the daughter of the former swim coach Cecil Russell, who was banned from coaching for life in 1997 for his involvement in an international steroid trafficking ring. That same year, he admitted during the murder trial of a steroid trafficking associate that he helped burn and dispose of a body in a corn silo beside his Oshawa home.

Cecil Russell spent four years in prison in Spain and the U.S. after having been arrested for plotting to ship ecstasy tablets into the U.S. through Canada. His coaching ban was lifted in 2005 but he was banned again in 2007. Swim Canada spokesman Martin Richard said Cecil Russell is not allowed inside the pool area while this week’s Canadian Olympic trials are going on.

Sinead and her brother, Colin, who swam for Canada at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is also hoping to make the London team at these trials, formerly swam for the Dolphins Swim Club in Oakville, but the club was fined and suspended last fall by Swim Ontario for continuing to have links with Cecil. Now, Sinead swims for the Blue Waves club out of various pools in the GTA.

“We train out of Toronto or anywhere in the GTA that has pools open when we need it,” said Sinead, who is coached by her mom, Erin. Sinead brushed aside suggestions that having to switch pools to train is a burden.

“I’m used to it,” she said. “Sometimes the commute’s 45 minutes. But to get the training in, it’s worth it.”

Russell is the current Canadian record holder in the 100 back (59.68) and though she finished second to Wilkinson Wednesday, the Burlington, Ont., native was thrilled just to make the Olympic team.

“It feels great. I’ve trained basically my whole life for this and have it finally happen feels amazing,” said Russell, who comes from a family of six children, five of whom swim.

As for Wilkinson, the Stratford, Ont., native, who finished sixth in the 50-metre backstroke at the 2011 world championships and competed for Canada at the 2008 Olympics, has been trying to break the one- minute mark for four years, and finally did with Russell blazing away beside her.

“Oh my God. It’s interesting,” said Wilkinson, when asked about breaking the barrier. “I (wrote) in my blog that I’m not thinking about it anymore because I got so crazy about it, and people kept coming up to me today, and they’re like ‘59’, ‘59’. And I was like, ‘Stop, I can’t talk about this’, because that was the wrong thing to think about. You never want to think of an outcome, you have think about the process.”

And the process got her to London.