BC swimmers more than held their own internationally from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s regularly winning world championship medals, setting world records, and earning places on Olympic podiums. Pamela Rai rose to prominence in the latter half of that period and stands as another key link in a long chain of strong BC swimmers from Mary (Stewart) McIlwaine and Elaine Tanner to Leslie Cliff, Wendy Cook, Shannon Smith, Donna-Marie Gurr, and Cheryl Gibson—all BC Sports Hall of Famers we should add.

“I feel like we were swimming’s classic rock,” Pamela summed up nicely. “Same kind of era. Great era for music. Great era for swimming.”

Born in New Westminster and raised in Delta, Pamela grew up in a very active and athletic family. Each of the Rai children—Pamela, Rajan, Michelle, and Sharon—were good swimmers from a very young age due to the fact their father, Harinder, who ran an excavating company, built a pool in their backyard himself so the kids could play and practice.

Beginning her 14-year swimming career with the Surrey Knights Swim Club, by age six Pamela was swimming competitively. Already showing great promise at nine years old, she transferred to the New Westminster Hyack Swim Club and was coached by fellow BC Sports Hall of Famer Ron Jacks. From a young age, she was already thinking about the Olympics.

“We were just glued to the TV every time the Olympics came on,” she remembered. “My dad had just such admiration for these athletes and I could just feel it when he watched them with intensity. That seed was definitely planted early on. Later it evolved, becoming a tangible goal that can be reached and not just a pipe dream.”

She quickly developed into a child swimming prodigy. Many swimming experts considered her one of the best swimmers her age in the world in the shorter freestyle distances. By age 12 Pamela was a member of the Canadian junior national team and had already set 16 Canadian age-group records and won events in the US, Britain, and Germany. By age 14 in 1980 she made the full senior Canadian national team and remained a national team member until retiring at the end of the 1986 season.

At the 1980 Canadian Olympic trials in Toronto, she raced to a third-place finish in the 50m freestyle against much older competition. It didn’t qualify her for the Olympics, as top-two were selected, but after Canada and other western nations boycotted the Games, she was an add-on to the Canadian national team competing in various meets with other boycotting nations.

In 1981, Pamela won six medals, including gold in the 50m freestyle at the Canada Games. She also won her first medal at a senior international meet, a silver as part of the Canadian 4x100m freestyle relay team at the Tokyo International Meet. The next year she competed at the World Aquatic Championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador, another major step up for the emerging 16-year-old.

1983 brought Pamela her first of five career national titles, winning the 50m freestyle in 26.36 seconds, as well as another major breakthrough. She won her first senior international medal helping the Canadian women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team to a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela. She also swam on the Canadian 4x100m freestyle relay team that won gold at the Hapoel Games in Israel.

Remarkably, while Pamela was producing world-class results, she was also enduring heartbreaking circumstances at home. By 1982 her father Harinder was seriously ill, undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. When not away training and competing, Pamela was at his bedside.

“It was very stressful for a lot of my training, the three years up to the Olympics,” she said. But even in deteriorating health, Harinder remained her biggest cheerleader. “He said ‘If you win Olympic gold, I’ll buy you a Delorean.’ I thought that car was the best thing ever.”

Sadly, Harinder passed away in the spring of 1984 at the age of 52, just three months before Pamela would compete at the Olympics in Los Angeles. He had been one of Canada’s best field hockey players in the early 1960s, scoring the winning goal in a match against the US that qualified Canada for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the first time a Canadian men’s team had earned Olympic qualification, but was abruptly dropped from the national team in a bizarre selection decision that appeared to have undertones of racial discrimination. No one would have been prouder to watch Pamela compete at the Olympics than her father.

“Whenever I competed he was in my spirit from then on,” Pamela said. “I really had to delay my grieving, sort of compartmentalize.”

At the Los Angeles Olympics, she finished 12th overall in the 100m freestyle and helped the Canadian women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team to a fifth-place finish. Her final event was the 4x100m medley relay with teammates Reema Abdo, Michelle MacPherson, and Anne Ottenbrite. After qualifying third in the heats, in the final each of the four Canadian women improved their respective length split times (Pamela swam the freestyle leg in 56.64 seconds) as the team took bronze in a Canadian record time of 4 minutes 12.98 seconds, just a second back of the silver medal-winning West Germans. With that result, Abdo became the first woman of Yemeni heritage to win an Olympic medal, while Pamela became the first woman of Indian ancestry to do so. Carried by years of hard work in training, Pamela had made history. Inevitably, thoughts turned to her departed father, whose spirit carried her to the finish line.

“Indian immigrants didn’t often go into sports at that time, especially girls, but my father was such a feminist,” she said. “My sisters and I, we were brought up that we could do anything. We could be anything. I really appreciate that about him, breaking those traditional rigid roles and values.”

After the Olympics, Pamela attended the University of Victoria, swimming for the Vikes under coach Dr. Peter Vizsolyi from 1984-86. In that time, she won six CIAU national titles and set five new CIAU records in two years. In 1985 she received the Canadian University Swimmer of the Year award and in 1986 UVIC bestowed its Athlete of the Year award on her. In 2019 she was inducted into the Canada West Hall of Fame.

Before her retirement from competitive swimming in 1986, Pamela once again was on Canada’s 4x100m freestyle relay team, winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland, while setting a Canadian and Commonwealth record of three minutes 48.45 seconds.

Her last major competition was the 1986 World Aquatic Championships in Madrid, Spain where she finished 23rd in both the 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly, while helping the Canadian 4x100m freestyle relay team to a strong fifth-place finish. She returned home to Victoria to be named the city’s Athlete of the Year, quite the accomplishment considering the plethora of Olympic and national level athletes training out of Victoria at that time.

After retiring from competition, Pamela coached young swimmers at clubs in Delta, North Vancouver, Courtenay, and Manama, Bahrain over the next two decades. She also worked as a high school teacher, graduated in yoga studies from the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy in Rishikesh, India, founded the only natural earthen yoga centre on Vancouver Island, and most recently has been heavily involved with the Rainforest Flying Squad, a volunteer non-violent movement committed to protecting the last stands of old growth left on Vancouver Island.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

For a more in-depth look at Pamela Rai’s career, please see the May 2021 Curator’s Corner feature article here:https://bcsportshall.com/curator-corner/pamela-rai-warrior-of-the-water-and-forest-asian-history-month-feature/