How Swimming Shaped Paralympic Athlete Tess Routliffe’s Life

Silver Medalist Talks About Rio 2016 and Moving Forward

Paralympian, Tess Routliffe swimming down the lane in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photos Courtesy Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee

Sports can define a person’s life and change its course entirely. Just ask 18-year-old Paralympic swimmer Tess Routliffe.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am [now] if I didn’t start swimming,” she said.

At four feet, four inches tall, Routliffe’s passion for the sport brought her to the summer Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro, where she won a silver medal in the 200-metre individual medley. She also set a new Canadian record for that distance.

“We were all crying,” said her older sister, Erin Routliffe. “Seeing her so happy and all the hard work she’s been put in pay off for her, it was incredible.”

Now three months later, she finds herself in Florida, where she is participating in her first training camp since the Games in preparation for the Can Am para-swimming championships in March and April 2017.

The teenage Paralympian, who will be attending Concordia in the winter, only started swimming five years ago. At the time, her main goals were to stay healthy and achieve personal fitness goals.

The sport, however, brought her more than physical aesthetic and health. It also helped her feel more confident. Growing up, she described herself as shy and quiet. That all changed once she entered the pool.

“Everything that came from swimming has been amazing,” she said. “I found it pretty easy as soon as I started sports. It kinda just became easy and I stopped worrying about it.”

Aside from winning the silver medal in Rio, meeting new people and becoming part of an international community of athletes was one of her favorite aspects of the Games.

“It’s just a great feeling knowing that you have people by your side with the same goal as you, competing with you, and working and training with you every single day,” said Routliffe.

Growing up, the people right by her side were her family. Routliffe is the only one in her family with a physical disability. Her two older sisters, Erin and Tara, played an important role in getting Routliffe to pursue sports (Erin is a tennis player and
Tara plays volleyball). There were times when the youngest Routliffe wanted to give up, but her sisters got her through that and encouraged her to pursue swimming.

“I think seeing your older siblings enjoying sports probably got her little bit more into it,” said her sister Erin.

“If I didn’t have my sisters, I probably wouldn’t have tried in the first place,” said Routliffe. “Growing up playing in the backyard, like getting used to sports, and getting used to playing with other people was very helpful in my life.”
Sports are a staple in the Routliffe household. However, no one in the family was much of a swimmer.

“[My sisters] were never swimmers,” she said. “They actually don’t like swimming very much!”

The underwater world became Routliffe’s second home.

“[Swimming] was just so natural to me because I always loved the water as a child,” she said.

Routliffe’s career started making strides in 2014 when she reached six individual event finals at the Pan Pacific Para-swimming Championships. She came out with a silver medal at the 100-metre breaststroke.

A year later, she won four gold medals at the Parapan American Games in the 50-metre and 100-metre freestyle, along with the 100-metre breaststroke and 100-metre backstroke. She also added a piece of silver hardware in the 200-metre individual medley.

Photos Courtesy Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee

She finished with the silver medal in the 200-metre individual medley and finished fourth in four different competitions in 2015 when she competed in her first International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland. Meanwhile, she established new Canadian records in the 100-metre freestyle and 100-metre backstroke.

“It wasn’t about the medal at that time,” said the decorated athlete. “It was about [doing] seven personal best times. I was really happy about those races. I actually felt that [I had] a shot at having a career in swimming.”

“When the chips are down and it’s time to race, she understands what needs to happen in order to win,” said Mike Thompson, her swim coach. “She’s not afraid to race and she’s not afraid to put herself out there.”

Thompson, who became the first head coach of Swimming Canada’s Para-swimming Intensive Training Program in Quebec in 2015, recruited Routliffe. According to him, it was one of his finest moments in his position.

“We worked really well together,” he said. “She understands what I’m trying to get across, she responds to challenges really well.”

Through competition, Routliffe’s maturity fast-tracked. She quickly learned that in order to become a successful athlete, independence and self-sufficiency are key.

“You travel so much,” she said. “You need to be able to be on your own. Like, you can’t always call your mom and dad: ‘Hey I need this.’ They can’t [always] help you.”

Since the Olympics, Routliffe has welcomed a whirlwind of change. The Ontario native has packed her bags and moved to Montreal in order to be closer to the nation’s only Paralympic training center, where it will be easier for her to work closely with Thompson.

She said moving to a new city and getting to know her new swimming teammates helped her deal with post-Olympic withdrawal syndrome, a phenomenon in which athletes fall from the Games “high,” forced to return back to reality.

“I could feel myself liking the change, but also wanting to be back in Rio and competing and experiencing all that over again,” she explained. “And I think that’s what motivates athletes to come back and train for the next four years. It’s not the feeling of the game, but it’s the feeling of the withdrawal.”

Routliffe will use this feeling of withdrawal to keep her motivation high in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Another important source of inspiration is fifteen-time Paralympic medalist Stephanie Dixon, who was born without her right leg and hip.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, feel sorry for my opponent,” Dixon always says. It drives Routliffe and reminds people that physical disabilities are not a measure of athleticism.

After all, with Routliffe’s successful track record, fans should feel sorry for her competition.