Adrian VanderHelm is the first member of SFU’s men’s swim team to qualify for the NCAA Div II National Championship — a feat he topped by also becoming the first male All-American swimmer at SFU. All in his freshman year.
“It didn’t really sink in until I got there and I started to see the level of competition,” reflects Adrian on his experience at the national championship. “Coach Liam [Donnelly] is not really one to congratulate, or be very buddy-buddy with you, but he gave me, we call it ‘the Liam Donnelly side hug,’ he gives you a pat on the back. It’s a big deal, if he does that, it’s like, ‘Woah, he gave you a hug.’”
Despite his early success at SFU, Adrian was a late bloomer to the sport of swimming.
“It’s my sixth year. I haven’t been swimming that long — most people start when they’re a lot younger, I only started [competitive swimming] in grade nine.”
In high school, Adrian struggled with his body weight. “When I was in grade eight, I was 5’7” and 220 lbs, I was a really big kid,” he remembers. “I was always pretty good at swimming, so my mom heard how swimmers were super ripped, and she was like, ‘maybe he could try that and see if he liked it, and maybe it would help with his weight.’ [. . .] So I tried it and I was very good at it.
“The biggest struggle I still have is nutrition,” he notes. “I log my food every single day, I count calories, I count certain nutrients I take in — and I still have trouble keeping my weight down.”
While Adrian notes that there is a history of weight issues in his family, he was reluctant to attribute it to ‘bad genes.’
“Some people say it’s in the genes, but I don’t like to look at it like that, because then it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to be fat,’ and I’m like you might as well try [to lose weight],” he explains.
With swimming, Adrian has found an avenue to get in shape, noting that he is now at a “comfortable” 187 lbs.
“You always hear people say, ‘swimming is the best exercise, it’s a full-body thing,’ but it really is true,” he says. “Not only is it a full body workout, it burns a lot of calories fast, and it’s fun for me — I don’t know if other people find it fun. It also is very calming — if I’m ever stressed for school I’ll go for a swim, even if I already swam twice that day.”
Exercise, however, wasn’t the only thing Adrian found in swimming. He also attributes a newfound confidence to his sport.
“I was shy, I had trouble with I guess you could say bullying — I don’t like that word — but people picking on you and people calling you fat or ‘fattie.’ It hurts and it sucks, but in the end it makes you who you are,” Adrian says.
“That’s the best, being able to come from people making fun of you and letting that drive you [. . .] You can’t let it push you down. I kind of rose above it and showed them what I was made of.”
When the time came to decide on where to go for university, Adrian narrowed it down to three choices: University of Victoria, University of Toronto, and SFU. Ultimately, the American collegiate atmosphere drew him to SFU.
“The people in the States just race like crazy. It’s nuts; you go to a swim meet and there’s more people watching than a Canadian hockey game — and it’s swimming, nobody even watches swimming,” he says.
The move from Barrie, ON was tough on the business student. Though he joined three “best friends” from Barrie who were already at SFU, he admits the first few weeks were a real challenge.
“I’m really close to my family — three brothers, two wonderful parents — it’s tough. I [saw] them day-in and day-out, my mom cooks my meals, my dad talks to me everyday, and we just hang out because my dad works from home. We’re just a really close family.
“All of a sudden, just not seeing them at all, it was really tough,” Adrian continues.
“In October I had kind of a breakdown, I had a week where I was like, ‘I want to go home, this is not for me,’ [. . .] I almost failed my first math midterm, that was the big thing, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t belong here,’” he notes.
But things quickly got better.
“After I had an interview with SFU SportsDesk [an SFU Athletics-produced web series], and having them want to interview me, talking to people, and being part of the leadership in the school in my first year, all that stuff [came] together to show me that people wanted me to be here and I wasn’t just here because I wanted to be here,” he says.
“Then having those three friends from Barrie back from my hometown rooted me, and I was able to feel like I was kind of like at home.”
Now, he finds a sense of comfort at SFU, with a family of sorts in his team, and a new place he can call home.
“When I went home for Christmas, I went home [to Barrie], but I started to think to myself I want to go home — back to BC. And it’s weird, I’ve only been here for six months.”
Swimming isn’t Adrian’s only specialty. “I went to the world championship for Pokemon cards when I was younger and competed for Team Canada, I went twice, Nintendo pays for you to go down there [. . .] I played Pokemon cards against some of the best kids in the world, and I came 19th.” He adds, “Pokemon taught me to read, taught me to write, taught me to do most of my mental math.” Adrian notes that he no longer plays the card game, but he “still loves Pokemon,” and has all the medals, and even has a Pokémon poster in his dorm room.