For Acadia’s Kelsea Vessey, swimming is about more than medals
By: Monty Mosher
Jumping into water to save someone isn't the same as jumping into a swimming pool to win a race.
If you need evidence just ask Kelsea Vessey.
She is a gold-medal swimmer for the Acadia Axewomen, coached by Gary MacDonald, and has already qualified in two butterfly events for the U Sports nationals next month at UBC.
As a rookie last year, she won four medals in the AUS championships, including gold in the 200-metre final. At the nationals, she made it to the 200 final, placing ninth.
But it's what happened after the season that makes for an interesting tale.
Vessey, who grew up in Halifax before moving to New Brunswick and Ontario as part of a military family, decided she wanted to stay in the Annapolis Valley for the summer. That meant finding work.
She came in contact with Paul D'Eon of the Nova Scotia Lifeguarding Service. Despite Vessey having no credentials, except outstanding skills in the water, D'Eon posted her to Aylesford Lake Beach. It would be up to Vessey to meet the certification requirements.
"I lucked in to the job," said Vessey, a business administration student.
First try at lifesaving sport
As a lifeguard, it meant she could compete in lifesaving sport. At her first nationals in Quebec, competing against dozens of lifeguards from across Canada, she won three medals.
She and a colleague from Aylesford Lake combined for the national championship in board rescue. She was second in a relay event and second in a solo swim.
In case anybody thinks swimming is swimming, think again.
"It's important to know how to swim if you are trying to save somebody," said the 19-year-old Vessey. "But it's definitely very different to jump into a pool to save somebody versus jumping into the pool for the 200 butterfly. The outcomes are very different as well."
What she discovered was being a lifeguard might have been the most important summer job of her life.
"It definitely felt like a very purposeful summer job," she said. "I was there to help people, if needed, which was awesome."
She's planning to stay this summer in hopes of doing it all over again.
D'Eon was short a lifeguard at Aylesford Lake. He put out some feelers with some of his staff and Acadia swimmers Brett Liem and Justin Oyler both pointed to Vessey.
But there was that pesky bit about being unqualified.
"We trained her in Bronze Medallion, Bronze Cross, CPR, standard first aid, oxygen administration, AED (defibrillators) and National Lifeguard over a period of two-and-a-half weeks," D'Eon said.
The Nova Scotia lifesaving team went to Maine for a competition in July. Vessey was so keen she was placed on the elite team. She did OK, but figured she could do better with some practice.
She was listed as a junior for the Canadian championship in August until it was discovered she didn't qualify by three days. She had to compete among the best of the best.
"She made the final eight in the board rescue event," said D'Eon. "This is a two-person event where the first athlete swims out to a buoy, raises their hand and their partner paddles out to get them and returns to shore.
"In the lane beside them were a team of two national-team members, both of whom were our best female competitors in the last world championship. Kelsea arrived first to the buoy about 120 metres from shore. Her partner, Carlena Eye (from Aylesford Lake also and a former Wolfville Triton) handily beat the two national team members for a national gold medal."
D'Eon said he's not surprised Vessey is doing well as a university swimmer. "Kelsea brings that rare combination of having great talent, an excellent work ethic and competitive ferocity. That's how champions are made."
Being at Acadia has been a great homecoming for Vessey.
Life took her out of the province, and much of her development in the pool came in Ottawa over her last four years in grade school, but coming back to Nova Scotia has brought her closer to her roots. Her parents are now in Gagetown, N.B., for a second time.
"My grandparents are here and all my aunts and uncles," she said. "It was coming home for me."
She had a built-in attraction to Halifax, which might have made Dalhousie a natural landing pad. The Tigers are perennial conference champions. She visited Dalhousie and she had a friend and club teammate from Ottawa join the Tigers.
"I knew I wanted to come back to the East Coast. When I saw Acadia and the campus and met with Gary and some of the swimmers I was hooked right away and just decided to come here."
She didn't really know anybody in the town. There were a few acquaintances on the team for that matter. But none of it was a problem
"It wasn't hard at all. I made lots of friends here. I new a lot of the first-year swimmers coming in because I swam against them before. I lived in New Brunswick for a few years, too. So, I knew one of the girls on the team already.
"I've moved around a lot so I was able to adjust quickly and make friends. The swim team definitely helps that way, too, just because you are automatically given 32 friends from being on a team."
Great rookie season
She made a fast adjustment to swimming at the varsity level. Along with her gold medal last year, she won silver in the 100 butterfly and 200 freestyle and bronze in the 800 freestyle. She holds the Acadia record in the 800 freestyle.
"We don't race as much as we did in high school but we train just as hard," she said. "The season is shorter, which is nice. But there is still lots of racing. It's different but it is definitely better. There is a better team atmosphere."
She swam with national team members in Ottawa, but isn't looking in that direction for herself. Competing at the U Sports level is plenty for now.
"I like working hard every day. I enjoy training and, in turn, I like swimming fast. Best times every year is the outcome I'm looking for right now."
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sports reporter with more than 30 years covering university sport in the Maritimes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)