Dalhousie’s Dennis mixes motherhood, medical school and a passion for swimming

Dalhousie’s Dennis mixes motherhood, medical school and a passion for swimming

By: Monty Mosher

If Stephanie Dennis had stopped at being a wife, mother and an air combat systems officer flying out of CFB Greenwood, that would have been plenty.

But Dennis, turning 32, is nothing if not up for a challenge. Always eager for her chance at medical school, she applied and got into Dalhousie in 2016.

Then there was swimming -- always swimming. She had competed as a youth, making a national junior team in high school, and had drawn interest from a U.S. university after graduating high school. She actually began in competitive swimming in the early 1990s with the Dartmouth Crusaders during a four-year stint in Nova Scotia.

"I wouldn't have prioritized this time away from my family if it didn't mean enough, if it wasn't such a wonderful environment," she said, reflecting on two unlikely seasons with the Dalhousie Tigers.

She wasn't confident swimming in the NCAA would allow her to put her academics first, something that she held dear. She embarked at 18 on a life in the Canadian Forces by starting at Royal Military College in Ontario.

Later, holding the rank of captain, she had a comfortable career as a crew member on Aurora aircraft out of Greenwood. It was the same type of aircraft her father flew, which led her to spend most of her formative years at CFB Comox on Vancouver Island.

Once she entered Dalhousie, she wanted to make the varsity swim team, headed by coach Lance Cansdale. One thing she managed to omit, at least initially, was that she had a young son, Eric.

Before long there was a daughter, Freya. A pregnancy … during first-year medical school … while swimming for the Tigers.

It all makes for a terrific tale. She was nearly six months pregnant, barely able to squeeze into her racing suit, in her first AUS meet at UPEI in 2017. She was still able to produce respectable results in the butterfly, her specialty.

Despite the demands of second-year medical school and a young family in 2017-18, she earned a bronze medal in the 200-metre butterfly at this year's AUS meet, narrowly missing the standard to compete at the U Sports nationals.

She is an academic all-Canadian. She brought Freya to the awards ceremony since she had been a constant companion in the classroom and the pool.

With Olympic dreams, Dennis grew up pushing her body to its limits. That brought her into contact with medical professionals. She was intrigued.

Her plan was to enter medicine upon completion of her four years at Royal Military College, but a change in policy sent her off into the trade she was assigned. That would be a commitment of approximately five years.

"At that point I would be allowed to apply to medical school and then, should I get accepted, the military would decide if they want to sponsor me," she said.

She loved her career at CFB Greenwood and was doing really well. But while on parental leave after the birth of her son, she decided she wanted to take her shot at becoming a doctor. She got accepted on her first try.

At first, the military had others ahead of her on the list for sponsorship. But some of the others didn't gain admittance, moving her up sufficiently to earn funding. In exchange, she will be a family physician in the military for five years upon competition of her studies.

With admission to Dalhousie, she contacted Cansdale. "Swimming has always been the love of life. I've done it forever. And I didn't use any eligibility at military college because they didn't have a varsity team. It was like a pipe dream to think that maybe one day I could use the eligibility."

She kept the fact she was a mother out of her initial discussions with Cansdale, believing most people would just assume few could handle the demands of a young family, medical school and varsity sport. She wasn't sure she had the ability to make the team in the first place.

"I'm a very honest person, I just didn't want to overwhelm him. On paper, it seems insane to handle and juggle all the things that I do. But I thrive in this environment. When I met him, he had heard a rumour that I had a kid. He asked me when I was going to tell him."

It turns out it was never an issue, nor was the fact she was pregnant by Thanksgiving. She sat down with Cansdale and said it would be OK if she was removed from the team in favor of another athlete, but there was no problem.

"I was so grateful for the opportunity because it was a risk to keep me. You don't know how a pregnancy is going to go. But everyone was super supportive. Eventually by Christmas I was showing quite a bit so I told everyone and they were all very excited."

At the AUS championships, she placed fifth in the 200-metre butterfly. "That was with a baby on board, so that was pretty great."

After Freya was born, she took the summer off to recover and get ready for the following season. She wanted to get into top shape to push for better results in her second year with the Tigers.

By November she was swimming the best times of her career. At the AUS championships at UNBSJ, she took 10 seconds off her time from the year before in the 200-metre butterfly final for third place. Both competitors to finish ahead of her were a decade younger and hadn't had a baby recently.

Tim Maloney, Dalhousie's athletic director, said Dennis is a great example of the combined excellence of student, athlete and community member.

"She is an incredible role model," he said. "I think the other interesting thing about Stephanie is she had a little more life under her belt before she came here to be a student-athlete. I think it allowed her to appreciate the experience differently than an 18 or 19-year-old. She had the opportunity to value that."

For Cansdale, Dennis was "all we could ask for and more in a teammate, mentor and example of determination and dedication."

"She always displayed a thankfulness for the opportunity to train and compete and brought all she had to each session," he said.  "She never complained, and often asked for more, even with her busy schedule. I believe that her influence will be felt by both the men and women she swam with.

"Stephanie was able to get back to, and in some cases improve on, the times she was swimming when she was 17.  I loved the fact that she had the drive to be better than ever, and this inside the context of her current family and school commitments."

Since joining the military Dennis has competed for the Canadian Forces team, travelling the world to represent her country. She recently qualified for the world championships this December in Russia, but it will come right in the middle of surgical training.

In order to manage the demands of her life, she would often swim early in the mornings before her teammates would arrive for practice. That would allow her a day of medical studies and a chance to be home to her family by 5 p.m.

"It worked out very well, but what I did notice that first year was I was really good at school, really good at swimming and really good at being a mom and a wife, but I was not very good to myself. I was run pretty ragged. I had to rework my schedule just to catch my breath."

All of that begs the question if a third varsity season is in the cards. She can't say yes, but she won't say no. She knows it is highly doubtful with the ever-increasing demands of medical training.

"But if there is any chance I can fit it in I probably will try. I have been so impressed by this team, from Lance's leadership and the leadership of the other coaches to the other students. It's been a really wonderful experience."

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