From the very first moment she could talk, Maria de Leeuw said she wanted to be a swimmer. Accompanying her parents to endless swim meets with her two older sisters, it was only a matter of time before the water baby would wade into the deeper waters of competition.
“I always went to their swim meets to watch them swim, so that got me into it,” she recalled. “Being the younger one, I wanted to try it out.”
By six years old, she was already a member of the Ladysmith Orcas Swim Team.
Now, at 12-years-old, de Leeuw is currently ranked Canada’s fastest swimmer in the 50m breaststroke category for girls her age.
“It’s one of the tougher strokes that not a lot of people get,” she said of the breaststroke. “It takes a lot of work and technique to get it right.”
De Leeuw’s record time of 36.36 seconds was a feat accomplished Oct. 23 at the Nanaimo Rapids Swim Team’s Fall Invitational.
“She took two and a half seconds off her personal best time in a 50m race, and missed a 14-year-old’s national time by sixteen one hundredths of a second… that’s incredible,” said John de Leeuw, Maria’s father.
During the race, Maria kept pace with an 18-year-old champion but because of the logistics of the breaststroke, did not know how close the distance was.
“I was wondering because I couldn’t see her ahead of me,” she said. “That race I had an adrenaline rush because I wanted to beat her because she was a national breaststroker.”
To keep in tip-top form, de Leeuw travels from Ladysmith to Nanaimo to practice 18 hours a week over five to six days.
“Swimming pretty much takes up all the extra time that I have,” she said. “[But] I want to go to all these swim meets and I need to train to get there.”
“My best friend doesn’t even bother asking me if I want to hang out after school because she knows I’m swimming.”
Maria says she draws inspiration from U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps who, like Maria, spent many hours as a child watching his siblings swim at the pool.
“I get tired, but I keep pushing myself,” she said. “I tell myself to keep going to the very end.”
Though she now trains with the Nanaimo Riptide Swim Team, Maria said she has benefited hugely from her years with the Ladysmith Orcas and the valuable coaching she received during that time.
“I had a good experience swimming with Ladysmith, being part of a team,” she said.
John said he has also seen the benefits of what a good exercise program can do.
“Swimming that many times a week teaches her an incredible amount of discipline, not only discipline to swim back and forth for two hours but also discipline for when she comes home to be organized with her school work,” he said.
Maria is now working on improving her times in the breaststroke and other swimming categories so she can compete in the nationals, being held in Calgary in July.
“A lot of my family lives in Calgary and they’ve never seen me swim in person, all they’ve seen is videos,” she said, noting she is looking forward to share her love of swimming with them. “My family’s always there for me.”
In the long term, Maria plans to compete in the 2020 Olympics, when she will be 21-years-old. She also hopes her future in swimming will help her attain scholarships to attend universities in the United States, such as California or Arizona.
Maria says she would like to study to be a lawyer.
When it comes to her Olympic dreams, John says he has no doubts that he will one day see his daughter on the international stage.
“She has a lot of fire and you can see it,” he said.