Greater Trail Winter Swim Club (GTWSC) member James Pilla competed at the Paul Bergen Jr. International Swim Meet in Portland, Oregon last week in an effort to qualify for the Canadian Senior Nationals in Victoria in April; little did he know what drama lay ahead.
The 18-year-old Selkirk College student qualified for the Bergen meet in spectacular fashion in Victoria last month, meeting the qualifying time on his very last swim and seizing a chance to compete against the world’s best young swimmers.
GTWSC coach Cody Flegel and Pilla trained hard for the past six months, and Pilla was confident going into the Bergen meet of qualifying for the nationals.
“We did some sets in practice that involved 50 back and I was getting close to those qualifying times so I thought I was going to blow my best time out of the water,” said Pilla.
After good but unsuccessful times in the 50 butterly and 50 free, Pilla swam an even better heat in the 100-metre backstroke, clocking in at 57 seconds, good for a berth in the final.
Up against German Carl Louis Shwarz, the best junior backstroker in the world, Pilla shaved off one-tenth of a second in the final, finishing with a time of 56.9 seconds, but narrowly missing the national standard of 56.6.
As in Victoria, Pilla waited until his final swim to let the drama play out.
The former Castlegar Aquanaut swam the heat of the 50-metre back in a scorching 26.70, a finger nail short of the 26.68 Canadian standard.
“He was just crushed,” said Flegel, but he told Pilla, “You made the final you’re right next to this German guy who’s a class ahead of everyone, if you can go head-to-head with him, you can do this.”
Following a brief rest and an analysis of the swim video, the two went over Pilla’s race, identifying the areas where he could make up time.
“His face was stone cold when he walked out, he was just ready to go,” said Flegel.
With the crowd cheering, TV cameras rolling, and music blaring, the competitors strolled the length of the pool in the “walk out” for the 50-m. final; Pilla was all focus and concentration.
“That adrenaline, that feeling of marching down knowing you are swimming with the best there, gives you what you need to push it over the edge,” said Pilla.
The GTWSC swimmer got off to a terrific start, swam hard, executed a quick turn, keeping pace with the world’s best. Pilla finished strong, and came in under the national mark with a time of 26.40 seconds.
“He was just in the zone, like he did everything technically perfect, for his ability right now, he swam a perfect race,” said Flegel.
Pilla just missed the podium, finishing fourth, but more importantly, he realized his goal of qualifying for the nationals.
The duo will keep training hard looking to achieve best times in every training cycle as they prepare for their next goal, an Olympic qualifier.
The goal now is pretty simple.
“Train harder than I ever have before in my life, and start preparing for these big meets,” said Pilla. “We’ve put things in motion, we’ve achieved the goals exactly when we needed to achieve them, at the meets we needed to do them at, and we’re just going to continue with the success, and with Cody helping me, it’s definitely a possibility.”