SWIMMING: Veronick Cullen has overcome several barriers in her first season

Wes Watt

When most students take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, they are worried about knowing the answer to the question. But Veronick Cullen worried if she could even read the question.

Cullen, a freshman swimmer, has traveled more than 1000 miles from her homeland of Quebec to attend Western. Since Quebec’s native language is French, she’s had a lot to adjust to.

When she first arrived on campus, communicating was difficult. But now she welcomes advice from other students.

“I was shy in the beginning,” Cullen said. “But now if I don’t understand something, they will explain, or if I say something wrong, I want them to tell me what I am supposed to say. I am a lot better than I was.”

A tough transition

For Cullen, the transition from high school to college has not been the normal freshman scenario. Not only does she have a language barrier to cross, but because of distance and expense, winter break is the only time Cullen can fly home to see her family.

Cullen said she misses her family and friends, but she doesn’t feel alone at Western. As a member of the swim team, she relies on her teammates to help fill the family void.

Teammate Courtney Speedy invited Cullen to spend Thanksgiving break with her family. Speedy said she knows that being far away from family is hard. She said she would want someone to do the same for her.

“I am excited,” Speedy said. “We are really good friends.”

But athletically, Speedy said Cullen has done really well. The only thing Cullen has had to adjust to is the pool’s measurement. In Canada, swimming is raced in meters. In the U.S., it’s measured in yards.

Cullen said that has given her an advantage.

Western’s reputation in swimming is what grabbed her attention and compelled her to send an e-mail to swimming coach Bill Powell to express interest.

Former Western swimming all-star and fellow Canadian Gord Veldman had dropped Cullen’s name to Powell, and as fate would have it, Western was one of the 50 schools Cullen e-mailed.

Powell responded immediately, and then assistant coach Bruce Marchionda called to convince Cullen that Western should be her choice.

“When the coach called me, he was the first person to really take the time to explain to me,” Cullen said. “It’s so different. Most of the coaches speak really fast and I didn’t understand them.”

But Marchionda talked slow.

And after just one visit, Cullen called off her visits to four other schools and decided that Western was where she wanted to go.

While her decision to come to Western was easy, getting here was not.

Green cards, a language test and paperwork for the Canadian government were some of the extra tasks that had to be completed before Cullen could become a student here.

‘She’s got a great attitude’

Despite her slow start in her first meet, Powell said the year-long process to get her here was well worth the effort.

At the opening meet in Las Cruces, N. M., Cullen was one of many swimmers who fell victim to the lower oxygen levels resulting from high altitude.

But she since rebounded and took first and third place in the team’s second meet of the season against Louisiana-Monroe.

“She’s got a great attitude, a great work ethic,” Powell said. “She’s at practice everyday and you never hear a complaint out of her.”

Building on talent

Cullen began swimming when she was 4 years old. Her swim instructor told her parents she was talented. Four years later, she was swimming in competitions.

After age 12, she became one of the top swimmers in Canada, with a silver and bronze medal at the national meet in the 15-and-under, and then two silvers and a bronze at the Junior Nationals, which are 17 and under.

When Cullen is not training for a swim meet, she spends most of her time studying. As a pre-med student, studying has become a major part of her weekends. With a textbook in one hand and translation dictionary in the other, Cullen has her hands full.

At 19, Cullen has already taken what are the equivalents to basic college courses because of Canada’s educational system.

She’s made sacrifices to come to Western, but she said the benefits are greater, and she has no regrets about her decision.

“I love it, I really love it,” Cullen said. “It’s better than what I was expecting.”

Cullen will be competing with the rest of Western’s swimmers and divers at the Maryland Invitational Thursday through Saturday.

Reach Wes Watt at [email protected]