Karine Thomas couldn’t think of a better way to end her athletic career than by swimming in front of friends and family in Canada at the 2017 Canadian Open in Toronto. Although the two-time Olympian had been contemplating retiring from her 10-year competitive career with Canada’s National Team, once that event was over in May, it just felt right.
“I didn’t really know when it was going to happen but it definitely became really clear to me that having good performances at home in the Pan Am pool where some of my favourite memories in the sport have happened, just seemed perfect,” said Thomas. “This is something I’ve been putting a lot of thought into and it’s not a spur of the moment decision. Bringing your 10-year career to the end is not something I would just do on a whim and I feel really good about this decision. It’s definitely the right step for me.”
The 28-year old, who grew up in Gatineau, Quebec, had a classic introduction to her chosen sport, being inspired by seeing it on TV during the Olympic Games. “I remember very distinctively watching the Olympic Games in 2000. For two weeks straight, we watched the Olympics and I just happened to fall onto Synchro and was completely mesmerized by what they were doing. I just thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen in my life and I wanted to try it, and I did and I fell in love.”
Growing up in Gatineau, she began her foray into Synchro at a small club, Les Étoiles de mer de Hull, that trained at École secondaire Mont Bleu. After a summer camp in 2003, she made the decision to move 200 kilometers away from home to train with Montréal Synchro. Then, she had to convince her parents it was a great idea for a 13-year old to move to Montreal to pursue her dream! However, she now says “that was one of the best things I could have ever done for my career.”
It was at Montréal Synchro that she worked with her first personal coach Kasia Kulesza. “She took me under her wing, and is someone who has always been in and out of my career,” said Thomas. “I’m very thankful for her believing in me in the first place and making me believe in myself.”
Thomas acknowledged other coaches who have been influential on her career including her junior coach Julia Warren as well as former National coach Julie Sauvé. She thanked everyone “who has supported me from across the country” and paid thanks to Lyne Piché “who was the one who got us (Karine and duet partner Jacqueline Simoneau) through Rio and I’m extremely thankful to have her as part of my career as well.”
Training under current Senior National Team Head Coach Meng Chen has been a pleasure for Thomas, and Chen paid tribute to her contributions to the team and to the sport in Canada. “To have someone remain on the National Team for more than 10 years is really remarkable. Karine is truly a dedicated athlete, who trained hard, and was a total team player. She was the last active member of our 2012 Olympic team, and her experience and her dedication was an inspiration to all of our new swimmers. We know Karine will be equally as successful in the next phase of her life and wish her all the best.”
Thomas, now a two-time Olympian, achieved the dream that started as she watched the Games from Sydney as a young girl. She clearly remembers walking into the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London. “I still get shivers down my arms when I think about it. It was a very surreal feeling going to my first Olympics and just getting to live that dream that you’ve had for your whole life. Not many people get to do that and it’s such a privilege to represent one of the BEST countries in the world and to get to live the whole experience that the Olympics are.”
The National Team narrowly missed an Olympic medal, finishing fourth in London. Four years later in 2016, Thomas competed in Duet at the Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with partner Jacqueline Simoneau. The two had trained together since 2013, and finished 7th in Rio. It was a different experience, with just the two of them there to represent Canada. “Jackie and I only had ourselves to lean on – It’s very different than when you have a team. But she’s very level headed, and never gets stressed, so she kept me grounded and took the emotion out of any situation we had.”
Reflecting on her four-year partnership with Simoneau, who is eight years younger, Thomas describes her as the “the little sister I’ve never had and I’m very, very thankful to have her in my life.”
And Simoneau feels the same way, saying “If I had a sister, I’d want her to be just like Karine. She is a fantastic person, both in and out of the pool. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to swim with her and compete at my very first Olympic Games with her by my side. Over the years our partnership in the pool has grown and flourished into an incomparable and heartfelt friendship made even stronger by the tears and laughter that we shared and, I hope, will continue to share forever.”
She had nothing but best wishes for her duet partner as she moved on. “Karine is a role model for young women across the country and I am convinced that she will continue to share her passion of the sport and zest for life wherever her new adventures take her. To my “soul sister”, Karine, I close by saying – Canoe forever!”
In Toronto, Thomas also truly loved being a part of the team event. “The duet is very challenging but competing in the team for me was just a lot of fun. It was one of my favourite things to do. You feed off of the energy.” She had one final surprise appearance at the Toronto Pan Am Centre with the team, when a last-minute injury to another athlete brought her in as a substitute. “I’m lucky again. I can’t believe I was able to do that. I didn’t want to make any mistakes because I had just learned it (the routine) – but my great teammates believed in me – and it was a great moment!”
She also feels that the team that competed in London in 2012 helped shape her as a person and as an athlete and have now guided her into this next phase of life. “That group of girls has continued to follow my career and have encouraged me every step of the way. I look up to every single one of them. They have transitioned into their post athlete life quite seamlessly and are just overall fantastic humans.”
Thomas hasn’t got her future completely mapped out. She’s working towards a Marketing Degree at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, and hopes to work in that field in the future. She wishes her national teammates success at the upcoming 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary in July.
“These girls have worked extremely hard since the Olympic qualifier. They came so close to being in Rio, and I really believe they will be able to surpass their performance. The kind of work they’ve been putting in and the hours they have been logging is amazing! I’m so proud of all the work that they have done. They are amazing athletes, amazing human beings, and I am just wishing them the best experience this summer. I know they will just rock it!”
Synchro Canada will celebrate Karine’s career in an event to be announced at a later date.