Leaside’s own Martha McCabe is a true Olympian.
Not only has she competed in swimming at two Olympic Games, London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but she is also a veteran of many other international swimming competitions and was recognized as Leaside’s first Athlete of the Year in 2013.
After Rio, she retired from breaststroke competition and, leaving her coach and years of training in Vancouver behind, launched into a cross-Canada tour from which she returned in mid-November. Martha conducted clinics and gave motivational speeches across the country, ending with one at the annual awards banquet for Central Toronto Athletic Club on Friday, Nov. 18.
Martha’s road to the Olympics began when she and her three older siblings played “McCabe Family Olympics” at their cottage while watching the real Olympics on television. After the opening ceremonies, with Martha as the torch-bearer, the siblings participated in sandcastle-building, running and swimming events in pursuit of awards.
Another early accomplishment was a race with just one other girl when she was five and attending Bennington Heights Elementary School. After that success, Martha took up several sports, including soccer, hockey, softball and basketball, all of which played a role in fueling her desire to go to the Olympics. As she says, “Who I am comes from my sports experiences growing up in Leaside.”
While at Leaside High School, Martha divided her time between running and swimming, coming fourth in her Grade 9 year at OFSAA Track in the 1500-metre race with an excellent time of 4:39.80. She credits her brother Jeff with giving her the extra motivation during the race when he told to “stick with those girls” just ahead of her. From then on, she says, “I was no longer afraid and was determined to go to the next level.”
When Martha’s swimming prowess seemed to be overtaking her running, she met her sister Carolyn’s friend, Liz Warden, by happy coincidence an Olympic swimmer. That experience, “coupled with a passion for sports and a talent for the breaststroke,” clinched Martha’s decision to pursue the goal of competing in the Olympics.
The young Olympian-in-training attended the University of British Columbia to work with legendary breaststroke coach Jozsef Nagy, and to train with other outstanding swimmers like Annamay Pierse. There she set small goals for each workout, focused on the moment, and kept a diary of her accomplishments and reflections.
Martha failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, but, undaunted, devoted the next four years to her goal, winning a bronze medal at the FINA World Championships in 2011 and finishing fifth in the 200-metre breaststroke at the London Olympics in 2012, her fastest race ever.
After recovering from a stress fracture in her clavicle in 2014, Martha was able to earn spots on the teams for the Commonwealth Games and the Pan Pacific Championships and made it to both finals, despite not being able to lift her arms over her head for three months of training! She then won the silver medal at the Pan Am Games in Toronto in 2015.
Though Martha did not make it to the final this past summer in Rio, she says, “Despite a disappointing swim, it was one of the most positive experiences of my career since I got to serve as the team captain for the most successful swim team in Canada’s history.”
All of Martha’s experiences over the years encouraged her to organize a speaking tour as part of her drive from B.C. back to Toronto after the Olympics. She was sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Swimming Canada and BMW Canada, which provided her with a car emblazoned with the words “Martha’s Canadian Drive.” Once in Toronto, she took a short break, then went back on the road to Eastern Canada, leading 45 different sessions and visiting 55 cities and towns in total. “The experience,” she says, “was amazing. My enjoyment of public speaking stems from the adrenaline rush I got from taking part in French public-speaking contests in school. I feel as if a whole new door has opened for me since the Olympics.”
Today Martha is working as an RBC Olympian in brand marketing and sponsorship. “Retirement is more fulfilling than I thought it would be, and now I do whatever I want to do in terms of physical activity, especially running – my first love – spinning and cycling.”
This young Olympian certainly helped to put Leaside on the map of international competition.