ďI consider it an immense honour to still be recognized in what continues to be such a diverse and thriving region. You donít know how special it feels to be re-grounded in the true place of my roots while living in yet another totally isolated community on the other side of the world. Iím doing my best to remain part of the swimming community here, coaching masters once a week and swimming with the same group as often as I can. The major motivation is to improve my surfing and in the big surf good paddling can be half the battle!Ē
The fourth and final inaugural inductee into the Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame is Olympic swimmer Mark Versfeld.
Versfeld moved with his family to Fort McMurray in 1978 and six years later at the age of eight he joined the Fort McMurray Manta Swim Club, which at the time trained out of the five-lane 25-metre Centennial Pool (he would later train out of the six-lane 25-metre Westwood YMCA Pool).Countless provincial records came his way the next few years and at the age of 15 his family relocated to Edmonton.He represented Canada from 1994-2001 starting with the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia.Versfeld was also a member of the University of British Columbia Dolphins swim team where during his five years he set several national records and was also a Royal Bank Academic All Canadian each years for maintaining a grade point in excess of 80 per cent while competing in sports at the varsity level.The year 1998 was when Versfeld made a big splash in the world of swimming.At the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia he swam his way to gold in the 100 metre and 200 metre backstroke events.The 1998 Aquatic World Championships in Perth, Australia saw him swim his way to a silver in the 100 backstroke and bronze in the 200m backstroke, breaking a Commonwealth Record in the process.He was named Canadian Male Aquatic Athlete of the Year in 1998.At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia he finished in 25th position in the menís 100 m backstroke.
Of his induction into the Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, Versfeld had this response from his residence in Perth Australia: ďI consider it an immense honour to still be recognized in what continues to be such a diverse and thriving region. You donít know how special it feels to be re-grounded in the true place of my roots while living in yet another totally isolated community on the other side of the world. Iím doing my best to remain part of the swimming community here, coaching masters once a week and swimming with the same group as often as I can. The major motivation is to improve my surfing and in the big surf good paddling can be half the battle!Ē
Question and Answer with Mark Versfeld
Q: When did you start competitive swimming?
A: I was eight when I joined the Mantas (now known as the Fort McMurray Swim Club) but had done my Red Cross lessons at Centennial (Pool, a five-lane 25-metre pool in Fort McMurray) as well. I remember having the most fun swimming in the smaller diving pool and of course I didnít know any better so 25 metre seemed long enough! It was more of a novelty to open the back doors in the middle of winter and be swimming while the pool area filled with steam. If we were lucky we could even hide from the coach for a few laps! After a few years you could really notice how warm and choppy Centennial was compared to the YMCA (of Wood Buffal) up in Thickwood or the Olympic size pool in Edmonton but it was home turf and its where I learned to really work hard.
Q: Did you ever train at Westwood YMCA pool (opened in 1987) and what was that like?
A: The Y was nice because it was close to home and it had the hot tub, steam room, sauna set up which was pretty good to recover in. Iíll never forget the picture of (Alex) Baumann, who by then had become the inspiration, hung up to see every time you walked down that long ramp. The pool was pretty good but Centennial is where it started.
Q: Who was your coach(es) with the Manta Swim Club during the years? What impact did they have on you?
A: I really should make sure to remember them all , including their spelling but I think Jacquie Schneider was the first, maybe Jacquie Spencer before that? Then Jack Ashton? Randy Bennett, Don Wilson, Eugene Georfy. In retrospect , Iíd say that they taught me to have fun early on and in my later years that pushing hard for something can also be fun. I have to thank them for bringing both the technical skills and enjoyment of the sport to me.
Q: How old were you when you set your first provincial record? What was the record and how did you feel?
A: My first record was when I was about to turn 11Ö.for both the 50 and 100m freestyle (long course) at the Lethbridge B Provincials. Iím not sure which was first and I hadnít expected either of them but I do remember some extra attention from people I didnít even know. My family was there and it was exciting for everyone I think. I felt fast and tried to remember that winning feeling which I think inspired me to try to break more records.
Q: What junior high school did you go to. What senior high school? What sports Ė aside from swimming Ė did you play in school (junior and senior) and what were the highlights?
A: I was part of the first class at St. Gabriel to go from kindergarten to year 9 and moved to Edmonton the next year. I played a bit of soccer until I was about 12 and maybe dabbled in some cross country skiing but Iím assured by my mum that there were no highlights in there anywhere.
Q: When did you leave Fort McMurray to train and where? At what age? Why?
A: I was 15 when I left Fort Mac with the family to live in Edmonton for three years and after finishing high school there I moved to Calgary to join the new national multi-sport centre.
Q: 1998 seemed your breakout year. Did you win two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the 100 and 200 m?
A: Yes I won my events in KL. We had a bronze in the 4 x 100 medley relay too. I think my preparation was better than ever, despite some really tough conditions training in Maui when the pool heater broke. In 1999 my coach and I agreed that I might have been pretty deep in training in preparation for the Olympic year and so never really got that fast. It was a bit disappointing to not have swum faster in 2000, some might have been training and some might have been physiological changes but you never really know and its not helpful to speculate too much either.
Q: That year named Canadian Male Aquatic Athlete of the Year How did that feel?
A: It was a great honour considering all the aquatic sports were included.
Q: Trying out for the 1996 Olympics? How close did you come to making the team?
A: I missed the qualifying time in the 200 IM by 7 1/100′s of a second. That, and immediately after my Olympic swim were one of my hardest moments in swimming. At the same time they taught me some of the best lessons in life. The entire journey was more important than any one particular moment while at the same time it is OK to invest a lot of passion and commitment to trying to achieve something.
Q: Making the 2000 Olympics How did it feel representing Canada?
A: Making the Olympics was part of my childhood dream and there was extra excitement because you know the whole world is watching. Performance wise it was a bit anti-climactic because I was determined to swim both the backstroke events and in the trials I ended up making just the 100 backstroke. I hadnít swum very fast since the 98 Commonwealths so there was a lot of nerves building up to the Olympics; just putting trust in my training which was very good but it wasnít showing in my races. Making the Games seemed like a relief and all of our focus was on trying to duplicate or improve on the performance from the World Championships.
Q: How did you do at the Olympic Games?
A: The Games were a massive spectacle. Of course the build up to the games and then arriving in Sydney was very exciting. It is not easy to remain calm and rest when there is so much going on; so many nations, all the different types of athletes Ė each with their own story, the sponsors and media, and then knowing all the supporters either there or back at home rooting for you. I was very disappointed in my swim and I was aware immediately that I wasnít going to get another chance to swim faster. It was an emotional roller coaster for me which didnít help but at the same time I am very happy I was able to share the experience with my parents.
Q: What influence did your parents have on you?
A: They (Kees and Hella) were an incredible support and not because it was swimming, or because they wanted to push me to win. The were able to support our interests, no matter what they might be, with an open mind and with a balance that ultimately helped us to succeeded through taking responsibility and also keeping any achievements in perspective. They place a high value on living a healthy and meaningful life which I think has made us want to pursue admirable pursuits. Despite Hella having also swum in the Olympics, it wasnít that much of an influence, it was more of a common bond that we are very fond of reminiscing about.
Q: Life at University of British.Columbia. What was that like and highlights there as a swimmer?
A: After the í96 Olympic year my coach, Deryk Snelling, had left to coach England and I wanted to regroup so I left Calgary to pursue my studies and swimming under Tom Johnson at UBC. It was a huge boost to swim with a bigger team, amongst all the activity going on on campus. I swam for UBC until 2001. We had, and still have, a tremendous team which made it a lot of fun to push each other to swim faster. The highlights there are hard to single out as there are so many different focuses between inter-university, national and international swimming. Winning our national championship titles for UBC (which has turned into 10 consecutive banners) made each year that much more exciting to swim there, while at the same time I was having the best swims of my life alongside several other team members. Helping to build up such an atmosphere of excellence was the real highlight, reward and lasting impression.
Q: How did you end up in Australia?
A: I met Winsome (girlfriend) in Vancouver in 2003 while she was studying law on exchange at UBC. We had some common Australian friends and before we knew it I was committing to come back to Australia with her!
Q; When did you stop competing?
A: After the Commonwealth Games Trials in 2002 I made the decision that my heart wasnít in it and that I would move on to find some other dreams. Mind you, last year I competed in the largest open water race in the world in team comprised of three Australian Olympic gold medalists to swim in a 21km relay race to an offshore island and managed to beat all the young guns!
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