Swimming Across the Border:
An Interview with Emily Vandenberg

This interview is part of our Swimming For Life Series

Swimming is a lifestyle.  Our youngest swimmers start out at the age of 6 or 7 in the pool twice a week for around an hour.  When our kids are young, those two practices mixed in with other family responsibilities can seem pretty demanding.  But, within a few short years those two practices quickly multiple in number and length.  At least once a month we are at a pool all weekend for a meet.  By the time they are getting ready to enter high school it’s not uncommon for them to be in the pool 6 to 8 times in a slow week between meets.  But, what happens when high school ends?  The Swimming for Life Series is intended to highlight the many paths a swimmer can take after age group swimming ends and the rest of their life begins.

In this interview, we talk with Emily Vandenberg, whose swimming career has taken her from Durham to Denver University.  A former age-group national record holder, she talks about her journey to US College athletics, how she balances athletics and academics and provides advice to swimmers looking to follow in her footsteps.


When did you start swimming? And, what clubs have you swam for?

I started swimming competitively when I was 7, but I have been swimming for longer than I can remember. I actually never finished swimming lessons because it became too much in addition to swim practice. I swam for Ajax most of my career until the club went under. When I was about 16, I changed to the Ontario Swimming Academy and chose to represent Scarborough for a year or so. After that I continued swimming under the Academy, while representing Whitby. Since going to university, I still represent both the academy and Whitby, but have mostly been training with Whitby when I’ve been home. 

What were some of your biggest accomplishments as an age group swimmer?

As an age group swimmer, I qualified for Olympic Trials and was in the finals of almost every race I swam at senior and age group nationals. I came 3rd at Eastern Canadian Championships in the 200IM in Windsor (maybe 2016? I don’t remember the year and I, unfortunately, don’t have the medal handy to know for sure.) On top of those, I have held 3 national relay records in the 4x100 and 4x50 medley relays SCM for 13-14 year old girls. If I am not mistaken, I believe the 4x100 relay record may still stand (or vice versa.)


Outside of your accomplishments on the podium, what was your favourite part of age-group swimming?

Outside of accomplishments in the pool, my favourite parts about swimming were the friends I have made along the way and the places I would have never likely been able to travel. It is team bonding and these experiences that I will never forget. 


Which University or College do you attend? And, why did you select that particular institution?  What year are you currently in?

I am a senior (4th year) attending  the University of Denver. I chose DU because of its atmosphere when I came on a recruiting trip. I felt at home with the team and could see myself spending the next 4 years with them. I also was offered a full ride to attend and they had a great reputation for academics. I already knew a couple of swimmers on the team, so their experience with DU really sold it for me, in comparison to other schools. I also chose to go to the US because it was common practice at Ajax. I didn’t really know anyone in our group that chose to stay in Canada. It was my dream to compete in the NCAA, because I heard the atmosphere is different. 


What academic program are you pursuing? 

Bachelor of Science in Biology, Bachelor of Arts in French, with minors in Medical Physics and Chemistry.


How do you balance your swim training with your academic schedule?

Balancing school and academics can definitely be tough, which is why they call it a balancing act. I usually set out a schedule for the week and try to be ahead on my school work so I’m not overwhelmed. I have never personally had a problem with the workload, I have found it less than what I was doing in high school. The professors and student athlete support services are quite accommodating and helpful. For these reasons, I am also able to work in a lab, have a job and still succeed in and outside the classroom/pool.


How did you get involved in their swimming program?

I was recruited by Denver and used a recruiting agent who sent my information to a bunch of schools. In addition, I was at a swim meet in England with Bailey Andison, who attended DU at the time, and she suggested to get in contact with the coaches at DU, so she helped me facilitate that. 


How is swimming different at University than when you trained with Whitby Swimming?

Swimming is much more team based I would say. Although at team championships with Whitby, it was very fun and team oriented, university is much more than this. There is a sense that everything is done for the team, it is less individual preparation and sometimes you swim things you wouldn’t normally! Duel meets are really unlike anything you encounter in club swimming. Your emotions are heightened and everything is done to beat the other team. During practice, because your team is so big, usually we are split into groups based on what you swim. Not to say swimming is different than with Whitby, but it’s almost like university is club swimming on steroids (without the steroids of course because you are regularly drug tested and that just wouldn’t be right!)


What is the most rewarding thing about being a student-athlete?

I think the most rewarding thing about being a student athlete is the pride you feel for your school, the skillset you gain and the friends you make along the way. I have never met a more committed, dedicated, intelligent team ever. Everyone is driven and it reflected in our work in the classroom and in the pool. DU consistently is top 10 in the nation for GPA and we pride ourselves in that. On top of this, as I mention, you gain nonacademic skillsets that the real world demands, like time management, initiative,  commitment, problem solving skills, perseverance and teamwork (obviously.)


Do you have any advice for our club swimmers that would like to follow in your footsteps and swim for a College or University?

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there! You are more talented than you believe. Take initiative and contact universities and coaches if you don’t have a recruiter. Coaches really like to hear from swimmers and see them taking control of their future. You can do anything if you set your mind to it! If you ever have questions or need help or advice, please reach out to Olivier and he can give you my contact information.