For Brian Lee, the Varsity Blues’ second-year swimming sensation, a passion for swimming and athletic prowess in the pool may be genetic.
“My parents met swimming for Queen’s University, and it’s been a family sport since I was born,” said Lee, explaining his reasons for deciding to swim in the first place.
The philosophy major has been swimming competitively for 14 years, beginning at the Sault Ste Marie Aquatic Club when he was six. After 10 years with the club, Lee made the decision to take his talents south of the border where he enrolled in the Baylor School, a co-educational private secondary school heralded for both its academic and swimming programs. With its multi-million dollar Olympic-sized swimming pool, the Tennessee-area school has a long history of producing competitive swimmers, including US Olympian Geoff Gaberino, who captured the gold medal in the 4×200 metre freestyle relay at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
So, it’s no surprise that Lee has emerged as one of the strongest swimmers on the team since he arrived at the University of Toronto. In just his first year as a Varsity Blues athlete, he won a silver medal at the 2012 Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championships, and went on to collect a pair of silver medals and a bronze at that year’s Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) championships.
That medal haul was only a sign of things to come. At the 2013 OUA championships in Toronto, the Varsity Blues’ men’s swimming team captured the Dougall Trophy and first place, and Lee added to his medal collection a pair of gold medals in the relay events and a pair of third-place finishes in the individual events. Then, at the 2013 CIS championships in Calgary at the end of February, Lee collected a silver medal in the 50-metre breaststroke and a bronze medal in the 4×100 metre freestyle relay. The Varsity Blues went on to capture the Nelson C. Hart trophy, ending an 18-year period that saw a Western team top the CIS every year.
Winning the national championship, says Lee, is undoubtedly the moment he is most proud of as a Varsity Blues swimmer. “It was an amazing experience to win like we did, made even more amazing because we’re graduating so many swimmers this year, and it was awesome being able to win with them.”
Belonging to a team is an aspect of Varsity competition that Lee has come to love, and that made winning the CIS championship an incredible experience. “Club swimming is an individual sport, but Varsity swimming really makes you feel like part of a team. I’ve never experienced the team aspect of swimming as much as I have here.”
It may also be a reason for the team’s success. “Having the whole team behind every swimmer every race made us all feel like we were swimming for something bigger that individual accomplishments,” says Lee. “Despite being close a number of times, I’m extremely happy that we were finally able to bring the trophy back to U of T.”
Though clearly skilled in both the relay and individual events, the excitement of relays is something special for Lee. “It does feel awful to swim poorly and let the team down, more so than just swimming poorly on your own,” explains Lee, “Having a team of three guys behind you makes it really easy to feel inspired and have a great swim.”
Lee trains once or twice a day provided he has no injuries, which can at times make it difficult to keep up with academics, he admits. “The coaching staff is extremely flexible concerning class hours and when you’re available to train though,” he explains. “Our meet schedule is determined ahead of time, which gives us a bit of time to prepare.”
As a sprinter, Lee swims fewer metres and trains less often than swimmers in other disciplines, since his focus is on short distances and speed as opposed to endurance.
Lee plans to stay in Toronto over the summer, as most Varsity swimmers do, in order to train and stay in shape for the upcoming season, which will see the University of Toronto host the CIS championships and try to defend their title.
“We had a lot of support from parents and alumni that made swimming at home an exciting place to be during the OUA finals,” says Lee. “Hopefully next year when we host the CIS finals we’ll get the same support and more.
“The biggest goal is to win the CIS championships for a second year in a row. The meet being held at home makes it mean even more to us.”