Rita Mingo, Special to Canada West
CALGARY – There is an unorthodox way of checking Emily Overholt's progress along the international swimming lane.
The more towels she has collected, the further she's gone.
"Probably like 15 or something," Overholt mused. "I think it started on the junior national team. I went to Florida or something and started buying towels at souvenir shops. After that, swimming's taken me everywhere, so I have towels from Australia, everywhere in Europe. It just became a thing.
"I missed my most recent one, Japan was this past summer, so I'm a little upset, so it's going to have to start up again."
If it all goes according to plan for Overholt, she'll be able to pick one up at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The 21-year-old, who made her senior national team debut at 16, is an integral part of the UBC women's powerhouse that over the weekend at the Aquatic Centre at the University of Calgary won its 10th straight Canada West title at the conference swimming championships. Not to be outdone, the T-Birds men brought home their sixth banner in as many years.
Overholt, a sophomore, did her part in gaining the team's whopping 969 points by winning gold in the 400m IM and as a member of the 800m freestyle relay, as well as silvers in the 200m freestyle and the 800m free.
"I think the times are not the best," Overholt conceded, "but that's to be expected. Right now, it's all about swimming for the team and it's a lot of fun getting to race varsity. It's kind of a different atmosphere than racing internationally. It's a lot of fun to race for the team and the points. I'm really enjoying it.
"There's a lot of depth at UBC so it's a great training environment. Especially as an IM'er, I get to race against different people every day. We're pushing each other and constantly making each other better so that when we get to the meet, we're used to close races."
Overholt was part of Canada's Olympic team in 2016 at the tender age of 18. She was unexpectedly called upon to swim the heats in the 200m freestyle relay, en route to a bronze medal. She also made it to the final of her signature event, the 400m IM, in which she finished fifth.
"It's a very different experience from what I'd experienced in varsity," she explained. "Just having to accept the challenge every day. Just learning to enjoy the process is the biggest thing I learned that Olympic year; I definitely had some challenges, dealing with injuries and stuff. Just learning to have fun, honestly, was the biggest thing for me and remember why you're doing it.
"When I got to the Olympics, I guess focusing on myself … I was very young and I didn't want to worry about other people and get into that mindset because it was very overwhelming at that point."
Overholt's fierce desire to be part of a Canadian contingent, racing on the biggest stage, was borne from watching one of the sport's greatest – Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals in Beijing.
"Watching the 2008 Olympics is when I was up-and-coming in swimming," Overholt said. "I was 11...watching that whole Olympics was huge for me and it was very inspiring. Watching Canada and definitely watching Michael Phelps."
Her post-Olympic experience, however, was fraught with challenges that have taken some time to get over.
"I had some physical injuries, I had some mental health issues," Overholt related. "I just needed to take some time off for myself. I was out a couple of months; I needed to regroup, I guess. I came back to full training in September of 2017, that was when I fully started the comeback.
"I think this cycle is very different from the last one," she continued. "The last cycle, I was up-and-coming and it was a very steady incline. I was young and each year it was constant improvement. This time it's different. Last year was getting back into it and this year I feel that I'm back and it's getting back to where I need to be. Hopefully, by this coming summer at worlds (in South Korea), I'll be back on track for where I need to be for the Olympics."
There were a number of Thunderbirds who had terrific showings at the conference championships, including 2016 Olympian Markus Thormeyer, male swimmer of the meet and Hoi Lam Tam, who set a pair of Canada West records. The weekend's top female swimmer was Kelsey Wog of Manitoba, another conference record-setter.