Graeme Aylward, Year 4 IndE student, featured in Varsity Blues Student-Athlete Stories

(Pictured above: Aylward prior to a race | Photo by Kevin Mackinnon)

Each Thursday, will highlight a U of T student-athlete and their academic pursuits. Each of these students achieved first class honours with an AGPA of at least 3.50 in the previous academic year. These are our Student-Athlete Stories.

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused numerous issues and a plethora of challenges for nearly everyone around the world. Unfortunately, the same can certainly be said for Varsity Blues veteran swimmer, Graeme Aylward. Not only did Aylward lose his junior year on campus and in the pool, but he also had to cope with the loss of his father. Despite going through the most difficult of circumstances, the fourth-year industrial engineering student, who also minors in artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as business, was able to find light in all of the dark by aspiring to become, not only the best student or swimmer that he can be, but also the best person.

“Simply put, during the bulk of the pandemic, while I was lucky enough to still be training, I really did not have much else to do,” Aylward said. “I channeled some of that boredom and frustration with being locked down into the courses I was taking and found that really immersed myself in my studies was something that I enjoyed and could excel at.”

“I also had a great group of friends and teaching staff in engineering who were very supportive which helped a lot. When my father passed away in early February [of 2021], they all gave me time to be with my family, which was extra challenging during covid and helped me get right back on top of school. Losing my dad also added to my fuel of wanting to succeed academically as I know that it was something he valued greatly.”

That ‘added fuel’ became very important for the reining 100m and 200m breaststroke OUA champion as his university years progressed. Like many students who are making the transition from high school to university, Aylward admittedly had his struggles during his first-year.

Aylward (right), with his sister, Heather (left) and dad, James (middle).

“I was always one of the “smart kids” in high school so I got away with some pretty lack luster study habits,” he said. “When I came to U of T it was a huge shock in terms of workload and material, and it took me a while to find the right balance between succeeding in the classroom, in the pool, and being happy while doing it.”

“I remember nervously refreshing my student account at a training camp in my first year to see if I would have the minimum GPA required by the school to be allowed to compete for the [swim] team.”

Trying to make the adjustment to university classes, while competing with arguably the top swimming program in U SPORTS, Aylward was also trying to cope with and digest his father’s health battle, which included multiple bouts with cancer. As you would expect, all of it took a toll on the Varsity Blues swimmer.

“I was having a hard time coping with my father’s illness as his health was declining rather quickly by the time I got into first-year,” he said. “The psychological stress on top of everything else did not help with focusing on school.”

Queue the pandemic. With the world beginning to shut down in March of 2020, Aylward was once again having to deal with circumstances that come with no instruction booklet. However, despite all of the challenges, Aylward said he was able to use that time away from campus to really focus on his studies and develop better working habits.

(Aylward competing at the 2020 OUA championships | Photo by Kevin Mackinnon)

Not wanting to simply scrape by, but rather excel at whatever he is doing, Aylward’s extra time spent on his work habits during the pandemic paid off almost immediately as he continues his post-secondary journey.

“When my father passed away, it was very difficult for me and my family,” he said. “However, despite that, I have found a much better balance in my life which has culminated in me landing a dream Co-op placement next year as a data science analyst for a private equity firm.”

“I also received an award for the top grades in industrial engineering as well as other leadership awards through the faculty.”

Having gone from nervously checking his GPA, to receiving the William Ian Mackenzie Turner Scholarship in industrial engineering for top marks in third-year engineering, Aylward has definitely found himself excelling in the classroom, and has now set his sights on trying to make positive change in healthcare.

“There are all sorts of blocks in the various information pipelines throughout our healthcare system and optimizing system performance is the calling of an industrial engineer,” he said. “I want to be able to contribute to reducing wait times for surgeries, ER’s, hospital beds, etc., help distribute money to where it is really needed and to patch the broken communication channels throughout all the moving parts of healthcare in Ontario.”

“It is a tall task and many are working on it but a lot more people are needed and I want to be able to contribute to the betterment of peoples health. Working with such a complex system you need to be able to have a wholistic understanding of what forces are at play and I believe that my experience in modeling, stats, business, and optimization will put me in a position to do that.”

Although Aylward’s goal may seem quite complex and will no doubt require a lot of work and determination, he will always have something of the upmost meaning to draw on for inspiration.

“I just want to do [my dad] proud,” he said. “He believed in me in everything I did, so whether it’s in school, in the pool or in my work, I want to excel in a way that would make him proud.”

“I want to leave a mark that he would have been able to look back at and have been proud to say “my son did that”.

– This story was originally published on the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues site on February 10, 2022 

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