Heading into last summer’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Canadian swimming coach Mike Thompson made sure expectations were reasonable for Nicholas Bennett, one of Swimming Canada’s brightest up-and-coming stars.
It would have been tempting to set the bar higher, of course.
The Parksville product was two years removed from his sensational international major competition debut at the Lima 2019 Parapan American Games, where he claimed three gold medals and one silver as a 15-year-old. But Thompson, who welcomed Bennett to the High Performance Centre – Québec in Montreal a few weeks after Lima, in October of 2019, knew the Paralympic Games were a different story.
Not to mention that, at 17, Bennett would be the youngest member of the entire Canadian delegation in Japan.
“Going into Tokyo, we didn’t want to pressure Nick to feel like he had to deliver on medals,” says Thompson, head of the Canadian coaching staff for the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships in Madeira, Portugal, where Bennett is set to make his Worlds debut from June 12-18. “He was exceptionally nervous before the Games, and when he gets nervous he doesn’t handle nerves very well.”
Bennett was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was three. He competes in the S14 category for swimmers with intellectual impairments.
“The idea was to keep the pressure off so that he could enjoy the environment, figure things out about himself, about his competitors, see whether he liked it or not,” said Thompson. “I wanted him to experience Tokyo and come out of it saying ‘I want to do that again.’ I didn’t want to throw him into it saying ‘This is what you do now.’ I wanted him to say ‘This is my thing. I want to do this. I want to be back, and I’m going to win.’”
As it turned out, Bennett thrived in the Paralympic Games environment. He reached the final in three of his four events, placing fifth in the 100-metre breaststroke, sixth in the 200 freestyle and seventh in the 200 individual medley. He also broke his own Canadian S14 record in all four finals.
“It was a great first experience. The Games was the most exciting place I’ve been in my career… but probably the most stressful as well,” said Bennett, named Swimming Canada’s Breakout Performer of the Year (Paralympic Program) for his outstanding performances. “I think the expectations to make finals, not necessarily win medals, definitely helped.
“The Paralympics are a completely different level. It’s the best of the best. I was racing against people who are seven, eight, 10 years older than me. It’s a completely different environment. To be honest, I almost psyched myself out a couple of times worrying about it. But just being close to them at the wall was definitely good enough for now. It was a big confidence booster, and definitely a great experience to have going into my first worlds.”
Despite his continued success, the months following Tokyo weren’t all smooth sailing by any means for Bennett.
Various challenges, some of them the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused him to miss the Can Ams in Greensboro, N.C., in December, and a World Series event in Aberdeen, Scotland, in February.
Through hard work and thanks to a great support system, including his sister Haley, the head coach of the Ravensong Aquatic Club in Qualicum Beach, who will be part of Canada’s coaching personnel in Madeira, Bennett got back on track in time for the Bell Canadian Swimming Trials held in April in Victoria.
In Victoria, Bennett once again shattered his national S14 marks in the 100 breast, 200 free, 100 fly and 200 IM to qualify for Madeira 2022 and the 2022 Commonwealth Games, set for July 28 to Aug. 8 in Birmingham, U.K.
“His times at trials would have put him in medal contention in Tokyo in three of his four events,” says Thompson. “At this time last year, he would have had the world record in the 200 IM, but that record was broken by two seconds in Tokyo. “I still think there’s more to be shaved off those times. Again, sky’s the limit for Nick. He’s only 18.”
Bennett approaches Madeira 2022 with moderated confidence.
“Of course a medal would be a great thing,” he said. “But anything can happen. Someone could go two seconds under the world record. I just want to have good races. I want my competitors to do the best they can so that they push me. It’s all that matters.”
— Swimming Canada