Adrian VanderHelm is swimming towards the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo

Last season, VanderHelm recorded the fifth fastest time in NCAA Division II history in the 500-yard freestyle.

If Adrian VanderHelm’s journey had to be summarized in one sentence, the Muhammad Ali quote “Impossible is nothing” would probably be a good one. The freestyle swimmer revealed to The Peak where his passion for swimming came from.

“Swimming was never a family thing. I was the first person ever to swim in my family. I started swimming after the 2008 Olympics. I watched Michael Phelps winning gold and said to myself, ‘That’s pretty incredible. He is by far the most amazing athlete of all time.’”

Despite a tough childhood due to health-related problems, swimming has built VanderHelm’s confidence.

“I took it natural into the pool because I was overweight when I was young, so I was able to float really well,” he chuckled. “I had asthma and I was borderline diabetic. Swimming changed my life in a lot of ways. Because of it, I can attribute a multitude of positive impacts on my life. I wasn’t confident when I was younger and I was ashamed of my body. Swimming also helped me with health and social complications.”

While many student athletes deliberately choose SFU for its uniqueness in being the only Canadian institution in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II, the Ontario-native recalled what brought him all the way to the Canadian West Coast.

“SFU is chosen on three accounts. First, it is the only NCAA school outside of the States. I was born in the States and I wanted to compete in the States, but I wasn’t sure about living there. The second reason being three of my best friends go to SFU and they’re all from Barrie and they all went to SFU for swimming. I was interested to see if I could follow them out here and recombine my friendships with them.

“The third reason is that SFU is the only school in Canada that can offer full athletic scholarships, which I ended up obtaining.”

VanderHelm is the first member of the Clan swim team to qualify for the NCAA Division II Championship; he also became the first male All-American swimmer at SFU, achieving both accolades in his freshman year. But when it comes to the Olympic level, the likelihood of qualifying for the world’s most popular sports event is slim to none. For junior VanderHelm, this dream could become a reality, as he’s already been to the Olympic trials for the 2016 games.

“As a student athlete, I would say it is one of my biggest accomplishments if not my largest and most proud moment [thus] far. As college swimming goes, being able to swim at the Olympic trials in hope of representing Canada was another one of my top moments. I am still hoping to represent Canada at Tokyo 2020. That was always kind of my goal.

“2016 was kind of rushed. I haven’t been swimming for very long. I started swimming in Grade 9. Somebody like Phelps, or any other competitor, would start when they’re four or five.”

Despite his massive achievements in swimming, adjusting to the student-athlete lifestyle is an ongoing process for junior VanderHelm.

“My biggest struggle? I would have to say the choice between napping and studying. I don’t have a nap schedule, but I should really make one. It’s really hard to distinguish when it’s responsible and academically viable to take a nap versus study. You have to manage your time very well and that’s difficult because you need to sleep and eat [a] lot when you’re swimming. I’m in four courses and I have to get good grades in order to compete. Our coach set a goal for us to reach a 3.0 GPA. You have a sense of recompense when you feel like you’ve accomplished things socially, academically, and athletically. Those are the three pillars of my life.”

Apart from the benefits swimming had on his life, VanderHelm gives a lot of credit to coach Liam Donnelly for helping him grow as a person.

“We have four coaches on our team and I deal directly with Liam. He has coached athletes in the Olympics and the World Games. My relationship with him is really good and we have moments where we’re proud of each other. I plan on swimming after graduating and I would like to do that with coach Liam.”