Sydney Pickrem and I are separated by nearly a generation. While I was busy wrapping up senior year at my high school, shopping for prom dresses at the mall with my friends and studying for final exams, Sydney was bursting into the world, a bundle of endless possibilities. For me, I always found great pride bringing up the rear of Generation X. The riot grrrls of the 90’s, with their unabashed outspokenness and visceral anger, railing at the injustices of the world–they were the women I wanted to emulate. They were unapologetic and urgent, as they sought to dismantle the patriarchy in their baby tees and dark, chipped polish. Nothing was precious. Even now, I’m still learning to grow into that kind of bravery. Sydney, leading the pack of Gen Z, having been born at the height of the Girl Power rhetoric, possesses the type of fearlessness I could only hope for at the ripe age of twenty-three. Strong and steadfast in her convictions, it is easy to see how she’s knocked one thing after another off her laundry list of athletic achievements. Is this what they mean about progress? We always hope that the next generation will inherit the previous generation’s dreams of a better future, to grab the baton without hesitation, taking off into the unknown. I look at her and I can’t help but think about my youth. I look at her and I can’t help but think of her shining future.
With one Olympic Games under her belt and her eye on the prize for the Tokyo 2020-now-2021 Summer Games, Sydney Pickrem is holding the bull by its horns. During the 2016 Rio Summer Games, she swam in both the 200-m and 400-m Individual Medley (IM), where she finished a commendable 6th and 12th, respectively, for her Olympic debut. In the years between then and now, she has made big strides towards her personal and professional goals, steadily collecting medals, confidently setting personal bests, and brazenly shattering Canadian and world records. In the last two years alone, she has captured three bronze medals at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, Korea, and brought home a gold and bronze medal at the 2020 FINA Champion Series in Beijing, China, just before the pandemic locked down the world. Her achievements in the past eight years are nothing short of jaw-dropping. In December 2020, she moved from Texas to Toronto during the most unsettling year in recent history in preparation for the postponed Tokyo Summer Games. “I’ve changed programs, I’ve moved locations. When I was finished racing in November, I picked up and moved here and that has been a really big change. Normally in an Olympic year, I would have been so apprehensive about that. But honestly, I was really just excited about the new environment. I love the coaches and the swimmers I work with here. I’m making the best out of every situation handed to me.” She’s unfazed, brimming with confidence.
For Sydney, much of her grounded sensibility was learned from and instilled by her mother, whom she cites as her primary role model. She was raised in an exceptionally honest household, where her mother was resolute in displaying both her strengths and weaknesses. As women, we are often taught by society to hide our vulnerabilities, which creates a negative implication between invulnerability and strength. We have all heard the phrase “never let them see you cry”, but as Tina Fey once said, “I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.” Gritting our teeth and denying our emotions rarely feels like the right answer for anything. Sydney has been able to lean into, balance, and leverage her sensitivities, which has enabled her to evolve into a caring, vocal leader. Still, when there are battles to fight, she still finds it more difficult to rally for herself, as opposed to those around her. “Everyone calls me the grandma of the group,” she laughs. “My speaking out always comes out of respect, not just emotion. It’s so much easier for me to fight for my teammates than to fight for myself.” For women, our emotions are often touted as distractions, as impediments to clarity. But what if they were seen as assets that allow us to be more nuanced in our communication and our perceptions of the world? When asked if she feels pressure as a female leader, a position which is often loaded with expectations not only to perform perfectly, but also to speak eloquently, upholding invisible societal standards of decorum expected of women, Sydney is unfaltering in her response. “I’ve been really lucky in my career. Swimming Canada is prominently female-forward and the women’s Olympic team has been a powerhouse in swimming. Our women are strong. The captain and leadership roles I take on I really enjoy. I don’t have a lot of fear stepping up and saying things. I have a great relationship with a lot of our head staff, and I really value that a lot.” With a safety net of people around her to give her reassurance that even in missteps, she’ll still be valued and supported, Sydney is able to unlock her courageousness. When a woman is listened to, heard, and given the tools to succeed, she pulls every other woman forward with her. Swimming Canada is providing her with the tools to reach new heights, something that she is simultaneously grateful for, while acknowledging that it may not be the case for many other women or even many other sports. “Swimming feels equal–not every sport feels that way. Swimming in Canada is female-led and a very lucky sport where you don’t see a lot of division,” she confesses.
I always swam for someone else–my coaches or my teammates. I didn’t really stop and ask myself how I felt. For so long, I swam because it was expected of me.
During our conversation, I brought up the Four Burners Theory, a concept I immediately identified with when I was introduced to it in an essay by David Sedaris. The idea is that each of the four burners represent a major quadrant in your life: family, friends, health, and work. The theory posits that to be successful, one must cut off one of the burners; to be really successful, one should cut off two. With this theory, the age-old question of whether women can have it all is burnt to the ground. Why have we tried so hard and for so long to achieve the impossible? Why have we set ourselves up for failure this whole time? The responsibilities of leadership often bring with them expectations of perfection, multi-tasking, and ultimately, burnout. For high-achieving, high-performing females, not just female athletes, there is an innate sense of wanting to do everything and to do it well, which inevitably leads to overwhelm. Excellence comes at a price and it feels like it is every woman’s rite of passage to learn how to draw boundaries to keep our sanity. The myth of having it all is a red herring; how do we distill our priorities to focus on the few things that really sustain us? “I was always such a ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ person. When I started school, I wanted to swim, to do well in my studies, to do everything well, and to have a social life,” Sydney admits. For a few months during college, she took a step back from swimming because she was unhappy. As with most women, there was a breaking point, followed by reassessment and restructuring. “I didn’t want to do this anymore. I had to ask myself, Is this the future I want? Now, I’m able to dial back and realize what’s important to me. Communication with my coaches was part of the balancing act–you have to be able to voice what you’re actually feeling. There’s that one moment where you break, and I think it’s okay to take a step back. I always like to say yes, but now I have an understanding with myself to not take on too much. I cannot commit all my energy to everything.” With Sydney, life feels like it is in constant calibration and so it should. The self-dialogue she maintains is important because it keeps her in check with the things she wants to achieve. A burner is turned up and others are dimmed. And the symphony continues.
I really had to accept what happened. That mentality has become such a tool, for this year especially. These situations happen. Those swims don’t define me. I really learned to take things step by step. I’m really grateful that it happened because it’s changed me.
The biggest turning point in her career so far was a very public experience, one that asked her to confront her biggest fears and threatened to rattle her once-unshakeable confidence in her sport. Moments into her 200-m IM race at the 2017 FINA World Championships, Sydney swallowed too much water and abandoned the race after 50m. This was her event; at no point did it occur to her that she would suffer such a setback in this competition. But it happened. The days that followed involved much soul-searching–so much so, that she dissected every moment and considered every single angle to find answers. At the end of it all, there just weren’t any. “In the moment, I was so excited for the 200-m IM. When it all happened, there was so much panic. Every emotion I could feel, I had.” In shock, she contacted her old club coach, with whom she hadn’t trained with in over three years, as he was still a comforting mentor for her. He was able to rationalize what had happened to her, guiding her off the emotional roller coaster she couldn’t get off. “He asked me, ’Can you breathe through water?’ No. ‘So you couldn’t breathe?’ Yes. ‘And you stopped?’ Yes. Dumbing it down to the simplest thing was what really stuck with me in that moment.” There was nothing she could have done differently.
I have always been curious about that fork in the road, where resilience kicks in and pulls you out of the trenches, and the alternate path, where the experience haunts you and takes a longer time to shake off. Does one get to choose which road to take? The redemption story is a phenomenon in and of itself. How much of that is ingrained through learning and how much of it is pure luck? “I’m high-energy and high-emotion; people didn’t know how to react after it happened,” Sydney confesses. In the time between the failed race and her next event, she looked to others to take her head out of her own experience. “This happened on Day 2; I raced again on Day 8. I had a lot of talks with my coach about what was to come. I wasn’t feeling confident in the 400-m IM whatsoever. I was training for the 200-m IM, that was what I thought I was going to medal in, that was it. I really came to terms with it and at that point, I started to invest myself in other people’s swims. I couldn’t think about my own anymore. I thought so much through all of it, there was no point anymore”. Sydney’s focus on others helped her shed whatever insecurities that had come barreling into her world earlier on in the week. “My best friend Kylie Masse broke the world record on Day 5 and I kid you not, that was the biggest change in that week for me. I was excited for her and her amazing performance, knowing that anything can happen.” When Day 8 rolled around, she swam her heart out and by the time she touched the wall, she earned herself a bronze medal in the 400-m IM. This was beyond a comeback–it was a life lesson in letting things go. “We get to this point when it comes to racing where there is so much emotion and adrenaline. We do the same thing every single day and we swim 9-10 times a week.” She had the race and the win in her bones. But this turnaround only reinforced her belief that she is more than her swimming. There will always be a time where nothing works out the way she thinks it will–the only difference in the outcome exists in how she decides to show up for herself. The learning that occurs in these moments are the ones that are the most rewarding, beyond any medal Sydney could possibly secure.
For Tokyo, Sydney will be swimming the 200-m breaststroke, as well as the 400-m IM. She would like to add the 100-m breaststroke race as well, to round off her competition. Since arriving in Toronto, her training, coaching styles, and practices have changed, and she is excited to see the progress she’s made since making these small, significant alterations. Training as a female athlete at this current point in time is allowing her to experiment with emerging innovations, and she is currently working with cutting-edge Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist, Jennifer Sygo, who also works with the Toronto Raptors, to augment her training. Together, they are incorporating the science behind rest and recovery, tapering before end-of-season meets, as well as female nutritional needs around menstrual cycles. Sydney, having been a Kinesiology major herself, is excited about the evolving nature of science to cater to female athletes’ desire to maximize performance. “The understanding behind why I want to eat this way or why I want to feel this way, to have that knowledge behind you, it gives me the reassurance that when I’m up behind the block, I’ve done everything I could. I think that adds confidence behind my racing.” These kinds of advancements toward women’s training will revolutionize sports. It is high time we started to look at training specifically geared toward women to amplify their unique potential in sport.
These days, Sydney’s immediate plans are to bubble in Toronto before heading to Japan to begin her summer adventure. Since choosing to represent Canada when she was only twelve years old (Sydney holds dual American-Canadian citizenship), having been told that she would receive so many more experiences and opportunities as a young swimmer, Sydney’s foray into the Olympic Games will be a family affair. “It was so easy for me to choose Canada–my family would always cheer for Canadians. We would go over to our neighbor’s house in Florida because they had CBC. We would sit with them every day during the Summer and Winter Olympics because we wanted to see the Canadian athletes we wanted to watch.” When asked what she envisions for her future, she says simply, “I plan to swim for a long time. We are moving in such a great direction where you can have longevity in this sport. I will have swimming on my brain every single day for the rest of my life. There is a lot to come.” Her future is wide open. What a feeling for her, to have the world at her feet and her hands in the stars. And her future? Simply golden.
Photography by: Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images