Nicholas Bennett created a major splash this year that has boosted his chances of landing a spot on Team Canada for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
The 16-year-old Parksville swimmer has achieved remarkable results that have drawn the attention of Canadian coaches, who are now touting him as one of the top athletes who could grab one of the three spots still available in Canada’s six-men para swim team.
Bennett’s big breakthrough was at the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru in October, where he won three gold medals, a silver and set a Canadian record. He followed his Peru result with another strong performance at the International De Noel Meet in Montreal early this month where he shattered four world short-course records. In the S14 category, Bennett posted a time of four minutes, 48.47 seconds in the 400 individual medley, 2:22.48 in the 200 breaststroke, 1:53.30 in the 200 freestyle and 4:02.96 in the 400 free.
Mike Thompson, Canadian head coach of the para swimming intensive training program in Quebec, where Bennett is now training, said Bennett’s dream could become a reality if all goes well.
“It’s pretty strong,” said Thompson, who has been very impressed with Bennett’s dramatic improvement this year and added that he wouldn’t have asked Bennett to make the big sacrifice of training at High Performance Centre in Montreal, far from his family, if he didn’t believe he had a shot.
“I’d say he’s going to be probably one, if not, the top guy that will be competing for one of those spots. Based on two, three weeks ago now, he has broken three or four world records. He is what, in my opinion, what most coaches that work with para athletes have been waiting for, for quite a long time. He’s incredibly talented. One of the things that strikes me about him is his natural ability to understand how to move in the water. He’s got a very, very high intelligence on what it takes to move through water. He is extremely coachable.”
Bennett has been honing his skills in Montreal for more than two months now.
Thompson said Bennett has performed everything they wanted him to do.
They were not surprised that he did so well at his last meet.
“It wasn’t overly unexpected that he set new world records,” said Thompson.
“It was by how much he broke them by was very unexpected. We didn’t see that coming at all. We didn’t think he would be that quick.”
This has been a breakout year for Bennett. He surprised himself and his coaches. Leading up to the Peru meet, Bennett had broken Canadian records — S14 200 meter freestyle, 100 free and 200 individual medley at the Canadian Swimming Trials in April. That earned him a spot in the Canadian team that competed at the Parapan Games.
For Bennett, getting the chance to compete in his first world meet was already a major milestone. He didn’t expect to medal he said. All he wanted was to learn from the experience.
“I didn’t know if I was going to win or not and I was happy I did,” said Bennett. “I didn’t really care if I won or lost. I still went to Lima and I got on the world stage and competed. That’s a big win for me.”
Bennett’s father Shawn and sister Haley, who also coaches Nicholas, were confident that he would excel in his first major meet. They took time off from their busy schedules just to watch Nicholas compete.
“I expected him to do well,” said Haley. “He had been hitting all the times that he needed to during practice beforehand even better than he needed to.”
Shawn said they were able to gauge Nicholas’ level by comparing his time and his goals with the stats of other international competitors. They were told by Canadian coaches that Nicholas would perform well.
And he did.
“We went there with high expectations but we also knew that anything can happen in international competitions,” said Shawn.
“We were blown away by the whole thing and experience to see him with the whole family in the stands.”
Being in his first international meet, Nicholas said he got sick. It was quite an adjustment for him.
“It was a bit rough,” said Nicholas. “But I guess it helped me also make it to the podium in one of my events because I lost six pounds just on being stressed, sick and being in a new environment.”
Bennett is currently home in Parksville. But he will be back training next month. He will join the Canadian team in a training stint in Australia. It will be Bennett’s final training before he competes at the Canadian Olympic Trials in March.
Thompson said it will all come down on what Bennett can do on that day.
“Assuming he stays healthy during Olympic Trials, no flus, no colds and no unexpected things it wouldn’t surprise me to see that he takes that first spot that are available at trials.,” said Thompson. “The trajectory that he has taken to improve is really not something that I have seen before.”
Bennett is not putting a lot of pressure on himself. He said if he makes it, he would be thrilled but he also understands that he is young and will still have another shot down the road.
“That would be amazing to be in the Olympics,” said Bennett, who is an affiliate member of the Ravensong Breakers in Qualicum Beach. “Representing Canada in the Olympics has always been a dream.”