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Paralympic swimmer comes to Acadia

Acadia swim coach Gary MacDonald, left, with Guy Harrison-Murray, a swimmer who recently competed at the Rio ParaOlympics. Harrison-Murray will swim for Acadia this fall.
Acadia swim coach Gary MacDonald, left, with Guy Harrison-Murray, a swimmer who recently competed at the Rio ParaOlympics. Harrison-Murray will swim for Acadia this fall.

WOLFVILLE - First-year Axemen swimmer Guy Harrison-Murray has never let a challenge prevent him from achieving his goals. 

Born in Bath, England, he moved to Australia with his family at age 13. He had started swimming competitively at an early age, but it "really took off" after the move.

Harrison-Murray was born with a condition called congenital bilateral talipes, also known as 'club foot'. The tendons on the inside of the leg are shortened, the bones have an unusual shape and the Achilles tendon is tightened.

It's left him with “very little flexibility in my ankles and not much power in my lower limbs.” It limited the sports he could participate in, but “swimming was a sport I could do.”

By age 11, he was training four times a week. He “didn't take it very seriously at first,” but in Australia, students are required to do a school sport. Swimming was his choice.

“I doubled my training time. I made the school team, and did well,” he says.

When the school year ended, he was invited by the coach of a swim club to join her club.

The coach, Mel Tantrum, “noticed my kick wasn't good, and that I lacked strength. She asked me what was wrong with my leg. I told her, and she told me I would likely be eligible for the Paralympics.”

A dream is born

In Paralympic swimming, there are a wide range of ability levels, ranging from S-1, the greatest disability, to S-10, the nearest to being able-bodied.

“I would be in S-10, the highest level, and would be racing against other swimmers with the same or similar disabilities,” he said.

In 2013, at age 16, Harrison-Murray received his national classification. He then had a choice to make: should he swim for Great Britain or Australia?

Adam Pine, the head of Paralympic swimming in Australia and a former Olympian, offered to allow him to swim for Australia. It made sense to Harrison-Murray.

“I had become the swimmer I was in Australia, with Australian coaching, so I decided to swim for Australia. I saw it as a chance to give something back.”

He made the national team and made his Australian debut in 2014, but wasn't allowed to compete internationally “because I wasn't an Australian citizen and didn't have an Australian passport.”

In January 2015, he was granted Australian citizenship through a distinguished talent visa.

“I now have dual citizenship. I was told I was the first minor to receive a distinguished talent visa. I was 17.”

This was just before the deadline for the 2015 world championships in Glasgow, Scotland.

“I made the selection times I needed, and made the team (for a second time), and now, I would be able to compete.”

By this time, he had parted ways with Tantrum, who had chosen to coach open water swimming, and was training with coach Ian Mills, “and concentrating on shorter distances.”

In Glasgow, he swam the 50, 100 and 400-metre freestyle, and also was part of a 4x100 freestyle relay team, which captured a bronze medal. “

It's called a 34-point relay,” he explained, because the disability ratings of the four swimmers “had to add up to 34 points.

“We chose an S-7, an S-8, an S-9 and me, an S-10. I was nervous. The other three were multiple Paralympic medalists, and I was in my first international competition.”

Harrison-Murray was still living with his family in Perth. At the worlds, he met Jan Cameron, a former Australian Olympic medalist who had been an Olympic coach in Canada.

Cameron was, at that time, coaching Australian Paralympic swimmers at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

“She offered me a spot there to train for the 2016 Paralympics. That was a big goal for me, the ultimate goal for any competitive athlete.”

Again, he had a tough decision.

"It would mean being a six-hour flight away from home, and I would have to leave Ian,” he said.

Heavy competition

In September 2015, he decided to take Cameron up on her offer and began training in earnest for the Paralympics.

The Paralympic trials were in April 2016.

“It was nerve-wracking. It was the largest crowd I had ever swam in front of,” he said, not to mention the most talented field of swimmers he'd competed against.

“My final race was the 400 free, which I felt was my best chance to qualify. A top-five finish and you qualified automatically.”

He swam well but missed the qualifying time by two-tenths of a second.

"I went for a walk on the beach with my mom, and I got a call from Jan telling me I had made the team.”

The next four months, he did the most intensive training of his life, “too intense to study full-time.”

The team flew to the U.S. for a two-week staging camp at Auburn University, then on Sept. 2, flew to Brazil.

“Seven of us who had been training with Jan at USC had all made the team. It was great to train together, and to go through that experience together,” he said.

The Paralympics were an experience he will remember the rest of his life.

“Being in Rio, with the best Paralympic swimmers in the world, was quite a feeling. The top two swimmers were both from Brazil. They got the biggest cheers, but all of us were pumped up.”

He had qualified for the S-10 50 and 400 freestyle but was permitted to swim the 100 as well. He made the 100 and 400 finals, placing eighth in the 400 and seventh in the 50.

In the prelims of the 50 free, his opening race, he tied for eighth and had to do a swim-off only 45 minutes later.

He had swam a new personal best in the prelims, swam another PB in the swim-off, then yet another in placing seventh in the final.

“In one day, I took three-quarters of a second off my personal best. I went in ranked sixteenth, and ended up seventh in the world.”

He also swam a PB in the prelims of the 400, which was good enough to qualify for the final, where he “swam faster than I had in the heat, but ended up eighth.”

The feeling, he says, was bittersweet.

Off to university

Harrison-Murray had planned to start university a year before he did but was advised by his coaches not to try starting university and doing the Paralympics in the same year.

He “always wanted to study abroad,” and had targeted the U.S., but “the NCAA had too many rules for out-of-country athletes, and when Donald Trump was elected president, I didn't want to study in a country with him as leader.”

Brendan Vibert, an Acadia student and varsity swimmer, had been Harrison-Murray's classmate for a year in Australia. During the Paralympic trials, Vibert messaged him, asking if he would consider Acadia.

“I had checked out Canadian schools, and found that U-Sport doesn't have all the rules they have in the U.S. I put it aside until after the trials, then I joked to Brendan that I might have to do like a lot of Americans were doing and come to Canada.”

He looked at several schools, and his final choice came down to McGill and Acadia.

“I preferred the schools and coaches at McGill and Acadia. I talked to Brendan and his dad (an Acadia professor). The thing that swung it in favour of Acadia was the size of the school and the close-knit environment.”

He has only been at Acadia a few weeks and had yet to experience his first AUS competition (set for Oct. 14 at UNB), but he likes what he sees so far.

“I believe in Gary (coach Gary MacDonald) as a coach, and I'm able to go to school and swim here and still be able to compete for Australia,” he said.

“There are always uncertainties travelling halfway around the world. It took me 42 hours to fly here, and I'm not going to get home that often.”

At the same time, “there are things I'm looking forward to about being here. There are no seasons in Australia. And I'm looking forward to exploring Canada.”

He is enrolled in a business program and is planning to stay in Wolfville for four years.

During the 2019-2020 school year, “my focus will be on qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics, but Gary and I are on the same page about that. We have great communication between us.”

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