Joshua Baerg is considered a late starter in the world of competitive swimming.
But you wouldn’t know it by the way he handles himself in the pool.
After just three years of training with the Winskill Dolphins Swim Club, the 16-year-old Delta Secondary student brought home five gold medals and one bronze medal last week from the 2012 Pan American Games for the Deaf.
Held June 12 to 24 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the multi-sport event marked Baerg’s debut on the international starting blocks. He was the only athlete from B.C. to compete for Team Canada, which included five swimmers.
“I was nervous at first because I wasn’t sure how I was going to do because I’ve never met these people before,” Baerg told the Leader poolside after a recent afternoon practice in Ladner.
His pre-competition jitters were quickly alleviated. Baerg took first place in the 50-metre, 100-metre and 200-metre breaststroke, as well as the 4x100 medley relay. And, much to his surprise, he earned a bronze in the 100-metre backstroke—not an event he specializes in.
Participating in the Pan Am Games for the Deaf also gave Baerg the rare chance to compete on equal footing as his rivals. Instead of a loud buzzer signaling the start of the race, it was the flash of a strobe light that prompted swimmers to dive in.
Baerg was born profoundly deaf in both ears.
“I didn’t start speaking until I was around five,” he says, explaining he got a cochlear implant when he was three-years-old which allows him some hearing.
“But it can’t get wet, so when I’m in the water I’m totally deaf.”
Being the only hearing-impaired member of the Winskill Dolphins comes with challenges.
“You kind of miss out on a lot of what’s going around,” Baerg says. “And when the other swimmers are talking I can never hear what they’re saying.”
Baerg recalls one swim meet at Watermania in Richmond when he accidentally false started. While the other swimmers were lined up head-down, awaiting the buzzer, Baerg was looking up at the soundbox, which flashes a light when it buzzes.
“There was glass windows on the side and I actually saw a flash and I jumped into the pool,” he recalls.
But the starting buzzer had not yet sounded. Baerg figures he was probably reacting to car headlights in the parking lot.
Winskill Dolphins head coach Ben Keast has found ways to effectively communicate with Baerg when he’s in the water. Keast has even learned a few basic signs like “faster” and “stop.”
“Ben is a good coach because he looks me in the face and I’m able to read his lips and he writes on the board,” Baerg says.
“Josh is very good at understanding or following my movements or asking questions of me if he doesn’t know what’s happening,” Keast says. “He’s not afraid to speak up if he’s not sure.”
Keast adds some of non-verbal coaching techniques he has developed for Baerg, such as writing out the daily workout expectations, have been beneficial for the whole team.
“So I’m doing things for the group with Josh in mind that helps everybody,” he says.
Steep learning curve
It was Baerg’s mother Barb who decided to sign him up for swimming when he was 13-years-old.
Although he was playing soccer and baseball at the time, Barb says he wasn’t getting enough fitness from those sports. So he started taking lessons at Winskill twice a week.
“And he did so well right away that in the first year they moved him right away to the competitive side,” she says.
Now she’s the self-described “nervous mother” sitting in the bleachers at his swim meets. Even though she was not able to accompany her son to Brazil, Barb says the news of his victories spread quickly.
“We’re really thrilled and proud. Everybody is. The whole neighbourhood is,” she says.
Meanwhile, Keast has watched Baerg develop a great deal as an athlete in a relatively short period.
“Initially he was hesitant to do some of the work and now he’s just bought into it and he’s seeing the results I think, so it’s really inspiring him to do more,” Keast says. “He’s come a long way as a mature swimmer, knowing what he needs to do.”
Getting to the top
These days, Baerg spends about 20 hours a week training at either Ladner Outdoor Pool or the Winskill Aquatic and Fitness Centre in Tsawwassen.
“During the school year it’s a bit hectic because you swim before school and then you swim after school, then you have to go to the gym the next morning,” he says.
Going into Grade 12 in September, his academic future is also top of mind.
“I’d like to go into the sciences for sure. I’m thinking of either biology or geosciences,” he says of his post-secondary ambitions.
In the immediate future, Baerg is training hard for upcoming competitions.
He will be up against able-bodied swimmers at the B.C. AAA Championships in Richmond at the end of next week, followed by the Canadian Age Group Championships in Calgary later in July.
Baerg has also qualified for the 2013 Deaflympics in Bulgaria.
When he is tired and nursing achy muscles, he looks to fellow Canadian breaststroke swimmers Annamay Pierse and Martha McCabe for inspiration.
“I see how well they’ve done and I kind of wish I was where they are,” he says. “I want to push myself to get to the top.”