Canadian swimmers look to build on Olympic momentum at worlds
For rising women's team, road to Tokyo 2020 goes through Budapest
Since the resounding success of Canada's women's swimming team in Rio last summer, athletes, coaches and officials have been doing everything they can do ensure the wave of momentum continues into the world championships.
After Canadians reached the podium six times at last year's Olympics, with 11 different women contributing to the effort, expectations will be higher when swimming competition opens at the worlds in Budapest, Hungary this weekend.
"I think a little bit of pressure is a good thing," says John Atkinson, Swimming Canada's high performance director. "I don't think stress is a good thing. But everybody who is on the team knows they are going to Budapest to perform."
Atkinson says there's no question Penny Oleksiak — the breakout star who won four medals in Rio, including a gold in the 100m freestyle — will carry much of the pressure on her shoulders. But he also wants to temper expectations for the entire women's team.
"We should be careful," he says. "You are dealing with young ladies who can progress and also plateau. It's a long journey back to Tokyo in 2020."
For her part, Oleksiak seems to be taking the increased attention in stride.
"People will always have expectations for me," she told reporters before worlds. "But I really don't pay attention to it. I honestly don't really care. I'm just trying to reach my own expectations."
Atkinson looks at these world championships as an early step on the road to Tokyo. Think of it as hitting the reset button on the Olympic cycle.
"World championships the year after the Olympics have a different level of expectation," he says. "By the time you get to the one a year before the Olympics, it's probably more of an event where you want to show what you've got, how well you can do, because the Olympics are coming."
Atkinson says these worlds will give the team a chance to evaluate where it's at and what it needs to improve upon. The swimmers who competed in Rio want to keep the momentum going, while some newer, younger athletes want to make their breakthrough.
While the success of Canada's women in Rio may have been a surprise to many, Atkinson says it was the result of years of work. Swimming Canada is constantly evaluating talent in the years leading up the Olympics, and in the case of the Rio Games, Atkinson and the coaching staff had been grooming the athletes for at least four years for their big moment.
"In 2012 at the Olympics in London, the Canadian swimming team won three medals — all from the men. None of the medals came from the women," Atkinson says. "And yet four years later we win six medals and we have 11 different females win medals at the Rio Games. Things can change fairly quickly from a women's perspective.
"Everything has to be about them continuing to improve all the time," he adds. "The door is always open for someone to walk through, but on the whole we have a pretty clever approach to [talent] identification. I do believe we have some super athletes."
Atkinson says it's also important for athletes to build strong relationships with their coaches in the years leading up to the Olympics. Trust and understanding can go a long way toward swimmers' performing their best when they need it most.
"Coach-athlete tandems grow together. It's part of the strategy," he says. "Experience is something you can't buy. It's something you can only acquire."
A new mindset
Atkinson sees it as part of his job to "awaken the sleeping giant" that is Canadian swimming.
Indeed, longtime swimming coach and CBC Sports analyst Byron MacDonald says the women's team has a new perspective now when approaching international competitions.
"The best thing is the mindset has changed," says MacDonald. "The concern now is we might miss a few medals, whereas the concern used to be I hope we get someone in the finals."
While there is a lot of optimism heading into these world championships, MacDonald believes winning medals in Budapest is going to be more difficult than it was in Rio.
"I think it's going to take faster times here than it did at the Olympics," he says.
MacDonald sees a number of reasons for that, including other swimmers around the world posting fast times so far this year. He also points out that Oleksiak hasn't had as strong a year as some would have liked.
"It's been a challenging fall and winter for Penny," MacDonald says. "She's not as fit as she was last summer, but you can never, ever, count Penny out. She will race extremely hard."
Much of MacDonald's attention will be on Kylie Masse. As her coach, he's watched the Rio bronze medallist rise in the world rankings on her way to posting the fastest 100-metre backstroke time this year.
"Nobody has gone as fast as Kylie," MacDonald says. "She has a chance here to pick up the torch and carry it with Penny."
Maybe it's a sign of the times that, even if the Canadian women don't match their medal haul from Rio, it won't be panic time, says MacDonald.
"The Canadian team will be unhappy if there's a small medal haul, but if it just misses a few it's not going to be devastating," he says. "The women's program has a lot of good, young swimmers and it looks really positive moving forward."