Swimmer Michael Edgson of North Vancouver, British Columbia, won a Canadian record 17 Paralympic gold medals, including 9 gold medals at the 1988 Paralympic Games, the most by a Canadian at a single Paralympic Games. Edgson, who has a visual impairment, is part of the 2015 class inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. Following the Canadian Sport Legends Class Induction Ceremony at the Hall of Fame in Calgary on 17 June 2015, Edgson spoke to Jeremy Freeborn for The Canadian Encyclopedia.
ME: It is interesting. My folks were very open for me to try a number of different sports. Having a visual impairment, some certainly worked better than others. Soccer was a bunch of kids on the field with a whole bunch of soccer balls, chasing them around. Hockey was more of a bucket of pucks and a bunch of little kids skating. Certainly if there was only one puck on the ice, I likely would not have seen the puck anywhere. I started gymnastics back in the 1970s but had trouble with arthritis in my wrists and my joints.
At 11 years old, I heard neighbours talking about the pool [and decided to try it]. I certainly loved to swim [and soon] joined the Nanaimo Riptides. In the individual sport of swimming, vision didn’t really play a role and I was in a safe enough environment where I could really start to flourish. My body adapted to it and away we went.
JF: When someone says you are a pioneer when it comes to Canadian Paralympic sport, what is your reaction?
ME: Pioneer is a very honoured word, and I don’t know if I would say that, looking at what I did. I was incredibly fortunate at a time where Swim Canada was really a driving force for athletes with a disability, particularly swimmers with a disability. We were incorporated into the whole program. I swam as an able bodied athlete for most of my career. I wasn’t a paraswimmer — I was a swimmer. The local swim club in Nanaimo, the University of Victoria and certainly Swim Canada just wrapped their arms around me and treated me as a swimmer. It was a lot about the support we had, and the systems in place.
JF: You were a high performance swimmer in the butterfly, medley, freestyle and backstroke. Was any one discipline particularly challenging?
ME: The breaststroke was by far the most challenging. I was not a strong breaststroker. I had issues with tendons in my groin. It was just not conducive [to the breaststroke] and impacted my medley. I was, without a doubt, a 200m butterfly swimmer. It was my strongest event.
JF: At only 15 years of age you competed for Canada at the International Games for the Disabled (now Paralympic Games). What do you remember most about the Games, and how did it feel to represent Canada for the first time?
ME: Representing Canada is an honour. There is a reason I have the maple leaf tattooed on my chest. It is a privilege. Sport is what brings us together and allows us to cheer. It reveals character. A lot of people say sport builds character, but sport reveals character.
[The 1984 Games] was the first time I traveled internationally and competed for Canada. I remember the pool. I remember my colleagues. I remember my competitors. I remember being at the opening ceremonies — the excitement, the buzz and the energy…I remember getting to the pool, wanting to get in and just race.
JF: Heading into the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul, you were scheduled to compete in nine events. Discuss your level of confidence heading into the Games. Did you think you would win all nine events?
ME: 1988 was a particularly interesting year. Sponsorship started to come into play. The Paralympic Games were getting media attention and they were getting a fan base. They were being televised for the first time. I planned to swim nine events, including a couple of relays. I had a lot of confidence going in, but never thought I would win nine events. You take each race day-by-day. It was interesting looking back, as I won an event, it became even more difficult to win the next. You would think by the time you got one done or two done, it would be easier and easier. It was the complete opposite. The expectations increased. The attention increased. The focus and the stresses on the mental side continued to increase. The biggest challenge was the last race. It was a relay, and being part of the relay team you are not in total control. You have three other teammates that you need to rely on to do their part. It was a very long meet. I was incredibly fortunate that it worked.
JF: Was there one particular gold medal that was more gratifying than any of the others?
ME: There were two events in 1988 [at the Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea]. One was a relay— the 4x100m freestyle relay. I was the fourth swimmer and we were third at the beginning of my leg. At the end, we won by a difference of nine one-hundredths of a second. It was unbelievable. That was very satisfying. The other was the 100m backstroke. At the time we were permitted to go as far as we wanted underwater. Being completely submerged for the first 42 metres and popping up, three strokes turning, my arms were fresh, but my legs were absolutely drained from the oxygen debt. It was extraordinary.
JF: How meaningful was it for you to carry the flag for Canada in the closing ceremonies of the 1988 Paralympic Games?
ME: I was fortunate to be selected as the flag bearer for the closing ceremonies of the 1988 Paralympic Games in South Korea. It is one of those honours you don’t expect. It is an unbelievable honour. You’re not only carrying the flag, but you’re at the front of the team and representing the team. It was extraordinary.
JF: After the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, you decided to retire from high performance competitive swimming at the age of only 23. Looking back on your swimming career over 20 years later, do you regret leaving the pool at a young age or do you still feel the timing was right to try other challenges?
ME: Absolutely, without any doubt, it was the right time. For swimmers in the 1980s, men were peaking between 20 and 22 years old and women were peaking between 16 and 18 years old. It was not the same as it is today. I always believed as an athlete that you want to stop at the pinnacle — the very peak of your career. Unfortunately you don’t know that on the way up if you stop. You don’t know until you’ve crested.
[At the 1992 Games], I lost a race for the first time in eight years and I wasn’t improving as much in each and every single event. I could win, but I wasn’t necessarily going faster. It was without a doubt the right time. I [also] got married in 1992 and had a year left in university. It was a point in my swimming career and really my personal life, that it was time to wrap it up.
ME: Without a doubt. I learned the life lessons of being very disciplined, determined and focused. I took that from my sport career to my working career and certainly to raising a family. The energy and the passion that you have, really can translate to the other people you deal with.
JF: What would you tell young Canadians with a physical disability who want to compete in high performance sport?
ME: [To be a high performance athlete], you eliminate all of the distractions that you can, you stay focused on the goal. You need mentorship, support and coaching. You surround yourself with positive individuals. There is lots of negativity in the world. Get rid of all of it, or as much of it as you can. Stay positive and stay focused.
ME: The Paralympic movement has been rapidly changing and, I would say, progressing. We are getting sponsorship. We are getting media coverage. There is now controversy about different levels of doping and coaching. When you start to get those things in a sport, you know the profile is rising because it matters more.
Canada and the Canadian Paralympic Committee want to be at the forefront, to be the leaders, the pioneers of Paralympic sport. We really are. The federal government is behind us. Sponsorship is behind us. The movement itself is going so fast and the attraction of top elite athletes is there without a doubt.
JF: In your opinion, are Paralympians appreciated more today than when you were competing as a high performance athlete?
ME: I would say they are better understood and appreciated, [particularly as] the caliber of Paralympic sport has increased so much.
JF: Were there any times where you felt discouraged by the different approach to Paralympic sport, compared to able-bodied sport?
ME: I don’t think I was discouraged…I swam against able-bodied swimmers for much of my career. I would then swim the Paralympics or the International Paralympic Committee World Swimming Championships. I could balance the two. I was at the top internationally in one pile and near the bottom of the other pile. Was I discouraged? No. It was enlightening. When you start complaining about transportation or accommodations, you know you have arrived on the international stage and that’s a good thing.
JF: What was your greatest life moment and why?
ME: I have three boys and my greatest life moment is being able to watch my children participate in sport with the goal of them being better than they have ever been.
JF: What Canadian has inspired you the most?
ME: The Canadian that has inspired me the most was [swimmer] Alex Baumann. I admired his dedication to sport, his demeanour and performance. I also admire Walter Gretzky, who I had a chance to meet years ago. He once told me “those who are truly great, need not talk about it.” It has held true to me today and to our children.
JF: What are your future life goals?
ME: My future life goals are to continue to be active, to be involved in sport at the grassroots level, and to help provide opportunities, where I can, to those that don’t have it. We see individuals who have the desire to train and compete. I hope to pass sport on to the next generation.