Jeff Heuchert, Stratford Gazette
Home was never too far away from Julia Wilkinson when she needed it the most.
And during the Olympic Games in London, there were most definitely times when the Stratford native needed the pick-me-up – never more so than after experiencing one of the most painfully close races of her career, failing to advance to the 100-metre backstroke final by less than one-tenth of a second.
That night she was kept awake by the negative thoughts racing through her head while she searched for answers that would explain her near-miss in what many considered to be her strongest event at the 2012 Games.
“I couldn’t sleep because every time I closed my eyes I would think, ‘I’m a failure,’” she recalled earlier this week, nearly two weeks since finishing her second Olympic Games.
In an Olympics where social media played a larger role than ever before, Wilkinson often used sites like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with her friends and fans, not only in Stratford but across the country. On that particular night, she was brought to tears by a message with a photograph of a young girl holding a sign that read, “I still love you Julia.”
“That was the best moment of my life,” Wilkinson told the Gazette, “because I didn’t know how I was going to get back on the blocks and believe that I could do it again. “That changed everything for me.”
On Wednesday, what had officially been declared “Julia Wilkinson Day” by the city, the 25-year-old swimmer had a chance to personally thank all of her fans.
“I saw how proud you guys were of me. You think I inspire you, but you guys inspire me every single day,” she told the throng of supporters who had gathered on the lawn across from the band shell on Veterans Drive to hear her speak.
“Thank you so much for being there for me. It means so much.”
Wilkinson said she may have left London without achieving her goal, but she still feels like she has accomplished something great.
“If I can get kids into swimming and sports and believing that they can be Olympians too, that’s a win for me. And seeing all the kids out here today makes me think that maybe I’ve done that.
“That is worth more to me than a gold medal.”
With or without a medal, Wilkinson’s accomplishments in the pool will inspire young swimmer for years to come, said Johnny Hewerdine, head coach of Middlesex Swimming.
“When you have someone like Julia, I think it gives (young swimmers) confidence. If you have a small town that doesn’t have someone like that they may not even think about (getting involved in athletics).”
Hewerdine was joined at the celebration by members of the local swim club, who had an opportunity to meet Wilkinson this past winter when she visited one of their practices, getting in the pool to help them train and spend time with them afterwards.
“It was awesome because you could just talk to her like she was your best friend,” said 14-year-old Madison Churchill. “And it was amazing to watch her in the pool, because you know you have the potential.”
Mayor Dan Mathieson said Wilkinson exemplifies hard work, determination and tenacity, and should be celebrated for her accomplishments.
“She always had a dream to swim in the Olympics. She’s now achieved that twice. Along the way she’s had many challenges, many triumphs, many setbacks. But she has never lost her will to go forward, to work hard and to be part of this community.
“She represents what our minor sports program is in this community,” he added.
Wilkinson was presented by the mayor with a swatch of the Stratford tartan on behalf of the city, as well as with a certificate from MP Gary Schellenberger. Following the celebration at the band shell, which included food and live entertainment, Wilkinson took a ride through the downtown on a city fire truck (a tradition for Stratford’s champion athletes) and participated in a free swim at Lions Pool.
Wilkinson’s Summer Games came to an end on the first Friday without competing in any finals. She reached the semi-finals in the 400-metre freestyle relay, 100-metre backstroke and 100-metre freestyle. Her 400-metre medley relay team failed to get out of its heat.
She admitted she felt an enormous amount of pressure heading into the Games, and believes despite her best efforts to keep them in check, nerves got the best of her.
“In Beijing it was just great that I was there. But this time around I really wanted to do something special. I think I put pressure on myself. I think I got too focused on what I wanted to do opposed to the moment.”
Wilkinson stayed in the Olympic Village for the remainder of the Games and, having missed out on the opening ceremony to train, made sure to participate in the closing ceremony. Still, she said she was ready to leave and begin to put the disappointment of London behind her.
“That’s why it’s so great to come home where everybody is so supportive of me and relax and get back to feeling like a normal person,” she added.
With London behind her, Wilkinson is now facing another daunting moment in her professional career: deciding where to go from here.
“My whole career had been about 2012,” she said. “This is the first time in my life I’ve actually had to consider my future.”
There are moments, she admitted, when she questions whether she has another Olympic run in her, especially when there’s no guarantee she’ll be able to make the jump that’s required for her to make the podium at the next Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Whatever her decision, it’s one she doesn’t want to regret.
“At this point I think I’m going to take it day by day, year by year.
“But it’s hard for me not to think about Rio. I don’t want to wake up when I’m 45 and say I wished I had kept swimming when I was 25. Because at that point it’ll be too late.
“If I don’t keep swimming,” she added, “I’ll never know.”