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Colonel Sarah Heer, RMC Class of 2001, was about six years old when those formal swim lessons kicked in.
At the time, Sarah Bailie had no idea that the dynamics learned from participating in the aquatic sport as a competitive athlete, would lead to her having a huge impact on others – and not just in the pool.  With her parents making sure she got to the lessons in Cambridge, a respectful and curious young Bailie absorbed so many things while associating with other youngsters and coaches. Then, came the life-saving classes and meeting more people she didn’t know. It felt like they had been friends for years. The qualities and skills that Bailie picked up, were clear signs of bigger things to come. Her tenacity and get-up-and-go surge to excel were noticeable – and especially as she grew older and more confident. Swimming was setting her up to be a caring and inspirational individual. She hadn’t envisioned a path that would involve sharing lots with the next generation. But it had happened. Giving back, and helping others, would become a huge part of her life.

Some may remember her as the kid who was in the Cambridge AquaJets Swim Club. Others might recall the days when she was the one with so much grit and determination as a member of the Region of Waterloo (ROW) Swim Club. The awards, and there were many, would continue in the backstroke during her days as a multi-sport athlete at Kitchener’s Forest Heights Collegiate.

Then came a time in her life when something very special would become crystal clear to Bailie.

It was at a ROW swim club awards banquet that a then16-year-old had zoomed in on the words shared by the events guest speaker. That individual, Kim Baker, caught the attention of the audience by elaborating on the mental, physical, and emotional achievements she had gained during her days enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces and as a student at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC).

“I remember that very well – (I) was searching for adventure and to be part of something bigger than myself,” she recalled in a recent telephone conversation “That was it. I really liked what Kim said. For me, I was physically fit thanks to swimming, being self-disciplined and had the life attributes that I thought were tailored to a military lifestyle.”

That fighting spirit of success, as an athlete in water, would later in life continue with a different kind of commanding performance.

Her highlight in swimming, and the ecstasy that came with it, was qualifying for the Olympic Swim Trials at a meet in Sherbrooke, Que. Indeed, a major accomplishment for a teenager who the swim hierarchy may not have counted on for international events.

Focussed and enamoured with what she had heard in that awards night speech, her objective was never stray from combining education, swimming, and the experience of serving her country.

“I learned that (RMC) was a place where they would pay you to go to school,” she said.

For Bailie, thought after thought, her mind was made up. It would be studies – and swimming for RMC in the Canadian Interuniversity Athletics Union (now known as USports). Four years later, it was graduation time from RMC. Bailie had worked hard to earn a bachelor’s degree in arts with a major in business administration. Then came a Masters in Defence Studies.

Her education would continue – but in a different kind of classroom. It was one that involved a variety of functions focused on military responsibilities.

These days, she serves as a special advisor to the Commander of the Canadian Army. In case you wondered, she has achieved the rank of Colonel in the Artillery (a combat arms trade) which historically has less than five per cent of women amongst its ranks.

“When I think of those days in the pool, I know that every minute of time there helped me – and will help others when it relates to self-confidence, and resilience,” she added. “In my case, continuing to swim for RMC and get a solid education, allowed me to succeed in the military, and more specifically as an artillery officer – a career that has been known as a male dominant profession.”

“There are numerous opportunities that exist within the (CAF) to continue pursuing sports through our various programs and the many teams that compete as part of the International Military Sports Council (CISM).

As a young competitive swimmer, her joining the military in 1997 was a natural next step for the young, ambitious athlete. A year later, she was off to Italy with Team Canada for the World Military Games. She took home a bronze medal and later that year, she was the recipient of the CAF “Female Athlete of the Year”.

“It was pretty over-whelming,” she said. “More people need to know that the (CAF) has

many incredible athletes. So, I felt very fortunate to have won that award.”

Everyone you meet has a story to share. The teacher, the doctor, the waiter, the taxi driver – and even the Colonel.

Times move quickly – and not just in races.

Married to James Heer, and the mother of two daughters, she also goes by another title – Colonel Sarah Heer. In her 27th year with the CAF, Colonel Heer has led Canadian and allied soldiers in combat zones and during times of humanitarian crisis. Deployed five times, she was on special assignments in Afghanistan and Kuwait.

Add on being involved with Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) when Sri Lanka was shattered because of a tsunami. Then, came Haiti – the site of an earthquake. Her most recent overseas duty was commanding Joint Task Force Ukraine (Operation Unifier) in 2020.

“I’ve been given so many opportunities and have achieved way more than I ever expected I could in the CAF,” she said. “Competitive swimming gave me the skills that I needed to succeed later in life. I remain grateful for the mentorship and friendship that my coaches and teammates gave me throughout my years of swimming.”

As a young officer within the CAF, with increasing duties and responsibilities, her competitive swimming days came to an end. But there would be another link. In 2023, she was named the CAF “Patron of Swimming and Lifesaving”. It’s a role she continues to fulfill these days.

“It is super rewarding and knowing that I can give back to a sport that gave me so much is incredible – and it is great to be back on the pool deck,” said Colonel Heer. “Volunteering my time to be an ambassador for CAF sports, cheering for our swimmers, presenting medals, and advocating for the team. I even realized that I was missing that feeling of being in the water.”

That has since happened. She has returned to the pool. These days, though, it’s for recreation and the joy of swimming more than anything else. There’s a saying – once a swimmer, always a swimmer.

David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 50+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

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