Faith rewarded

Knelson competing against the best adult swimmers in the country at the tender age of 13

Faith Knelson is serving notice she can swim with the best in the country — not just in her age group

Faith Knelson is serving notice she can swim with the best in the country — not just in her age group

In the world of community sports reporting, it’s sometimes hard to give a story its proper weight.

So read the following statement with care.

According to last month’s Team Canada swimming trials, Faith Knelson is very close to joining the ranks of the best swimmers in all of Canada.

Not the best in her age group. Not the best from a small swim club. Not the best among those living on the north island — although she is certainly all those things too.

When Knelson dove into Toronto’s Pan Am Sports Centre last month, she was competing against the best swimmers our country has to offer, period, full-stop: women up to 10 years her senior; women who would eventually be named to Canada’s Pan Am Games team.

She finished 17th in the 50-metre women’s breaststroke final, where she shared the pool with Breeja Larson, a 23-year-old American who finished sixth in the 2012 London Olympics.

Knelson is only 13.

Ultimately, the shining light of the Ladysmith-Chemainus Orca swim club didn’t make the Pan Am team, or even our country’s squad for the upcoming Junior Worlds in Singapore — the world’s marquee event for swimmers 16 and under.

But she served notice she is knocking on the door, perhaps as soon as next year.

“To qualify you have to make a certain time and finish in the top two,” her coach Dusan Toth-Szabo said. “She didn’t make the team, but she has three more years to make it. She is number one out of all 13-year-old girls in Canada.”

To put her finish in the 50-metre breaststroke final in perspective, this precocious Ladysmith torpedo finished one spot below the next youngest qualifier, a girl three years older. A 17-year-old finished 6th overall. Everyone else she was chasing was at least six years her senior.

In addition to qualifying for final in the 50-metre breaststroke, Knelson also just missed the cut in the 100-metre breaststroke, finishing 23rd in the country. And she finished a respectable 47th in the 50-metre butterfly.

A Ladysmith resident and Grade 8 student at Queen of Angels school in Duncan, Knelson qualified for this same event last year, but attended mostly for the experience.

This time, it felt like the stakes were higher.

“I was totally nervous. I flew into Toronto at 2 a.m. My flight was delayed and I only got two hours sleep,” she said. “My heart was pounding. Then I raced my first race.”

The venue was world-class — brand-new, sleek, huge and glistening, built to host this summer’s Pan-Am Games. The competitors were mostly from large, monied clubs.

One could see how it would be pretty tough for a small-town kid barely into her teens to feel entirely comfortable. But she did a good job channeling her discomfort into the pool.

“Swimming in a small club and a small town swimming against the best swimmers in Canada is quite intimidating,” she said. “At the end it is who wants it most.”

At home, she swims six times a week, 90 minutes at a time. Toth-Szabo has tried to manage her training in such a way to encourage steady, long-term progress.

“What I am trying to make sure is not happening is that we see so many age-group superstars that have never did anything later,” he said. “She’s not burned out. She still has a lot left in her.”

In order to make the Junior National team, Knelson will have to carve some time off her personal best clockings.

“I need two seconds,” she said. “I don’t know if I can do that so I think I have to push myself even harder than this year.”

She will work toward that goal this summer while competing at the age-group islands, provincials and nationals. Last year at nationals, she made the finals in all four disciplines — breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke and freestyle — a rare occurence.

Continuing that success means a huge commitment, not only from Faith, but from her family as well. That kind of travel involves time and money.

The family has always valued sports in general, so it’s a commitment they have been happy to make.

“She’s had incredible opportunities because she’s had the gift of swimming,” Faith’s mom, Shelley Anderson, said. “She’s had several oportunities to meet Olympians at a very young age and I think they inspired her.”

Anderson said her daughter has always had a love affair with the water. One of her earliest swimming instructors dubbed her Ms. Fish.

Already the fastest Ladysmith-Chemainus Orca ever, Knelson has been swimming with the club since she was seven and loving it. But her goals are focused far beyond the cement-and-tile tank at Frank Jameson Community Centre.

“(My goal) is to eventually make national teams and swim in an Olympic final,” she said. “When I was six or seven, I said to my mom, I’m going to be an Olympian.”

Big dreams like that are shared by many youngsters. Unlike most of her peers, Knelson is starting to show signs those dreams actually may have a chance of coming true.

Eight medals at last year’s age group nationals and the fact she set three provincial records for three different swim strokes — freestyle, butterfly and breaststroke — put her on the radar of the national swimming program.

The organization is helping her with a nutritionist, a sports psychologist and a physiologist.

Mom is starting to realize this has the potential to be more than a hobby. But what she thinks is most important is that her daughter is doing what she loves.

“My hope is that she continues to love the sport and have a passion for the sport,” she said.

“She definitely has the times and the drive. It’s all her. We’re definitely there to support her.

“Whatever she sets her mind to she can do. It’s her goal and her love and she’s my love.”

Toth-Szabo is reluctant to put his young charge on a pedestal yet. You can see him weigh his words carefully to determine what will have the best effect.

He emphasizes years of work and personal growth are still needed, but acknowledges the potential is there.

“She knows what she’s doing and knows where she wants to be,” he said. “Anything’s possible.”