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Ruck, Masse ready to lead Canada at Pan Pacific swim championships

In what will be a dress rehearsal for the 2020 Olympic Games, Canadians Taylor Ruck and Kylie Masse will look to build off the success they’ve generated over the last year. CBC Sports will have full live stream coverage of the event, which takes place Thursday through Sunday in Tokyo.

American heavyweights Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel also competing

Canadian hopes at the 2018 Pan Pacific championships rest with swimming sensations Kylie Masse, right, and Taylor Ruck, left. (Rick Rycroft/Associated Press)

In what will be a dress rehearsal for the 2020 Olympic Games, Taylor Ruck and Kylie Masse will race internationally for the second time this season, leading a talented Canadian swim team into the 2018 Pan Pacific swimming championships.

The national team competes in Tokyo from Thursday through to Sunday in the quadrennial event, which initially included countries bordering the Pacific Ocean but has since expanded to include non-European countries.

CBCSports.ca will have full live stream coverage of the event beginning Thursday at 5 a.m. ET.

Canada's swim roster has skyrocketed since the last Pan Pac championships in 2014, largely due to Ruck and Masse.

The video below explains just exactly what the Pan Pac championships are. 

The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships are one of the toughest swim meets in the 2018 calendar. They happen Aug. 9-12, and Canadians Taylor Ruck and Kylie Masse are looking to medal. 1:56

Will Masse continue backstroke dominance?

Up until two weeks ago, the 22-year-old Masse held the world record in the 100-metre backstroke. The Toronto swimmer set the mark at the 2017 FINA world championships when she swam 58.10 seconds to win gold and become Canada's first female world champion.

Masse raced to the record time of 0:58.10 as she became the world champion. 2:51

But her record was broken by 21-year-old Kathleen Baker, who swam 58-seconds flat at the U.S. nationals in late July. Baker is also an Olympic silver medallist, and one Masse beat out for gold at the 2017 worlds.

Masse is no stranger to success either. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games she won two gold medals in the 100 and 200 backstroke, and set Commonwealth records in both events. She also won silver in the 50, not to mention being the Olympic bronze medallist in the 100.

So with these two heavyweights going head-to-head, the women's backstroke events are definitely ones to watch.

Other medal contenders in the backstroke include Australia's Emily Seebohm, as well as Ruck.

Ruck to challenge U.S. superpower

Born in Kelowna, B.C., Ruck will compete in the backstroke (100 and 200) and freestyle (100, 200 and possibly​ the 50) events in Tokyo. If she can come close to her record-tying Commonwealth Games performance, Canadians are in for a good show.

Ruck, 18, burst onto the scene at her first Olympics in Rio 2016, helping Canada's relay teams to two bronze medals. Oddly enough, she initially didn't make the Olympic squad — Ruck was brought on as a special addition by Canadian coaches.

Since then, she's skyrocketed to success, bringing home six gold medals from the 2017 FINA world junior championships (along with a silver), and eight medals at this year's Commonwealth Games.

Along with Penny Oleksiak, Ruck is a swimming talent Canada hasn't seen in quite some time.

But a huge barrier stands between Ruck and the top of the podium in the 200 freestyle. Enter, Katie Ledecky.

The 21-year-old American has dominated the freestyle events (200, 400, 800, 1,500) for over five years. She's a five-time Olympic gold medallist, holds 14 world titles and is coming off her 17th national title.

The words "world record" are synonymous with Ledecky's name. She's only broken one so far this year when she beat her own record back in May at the TYR Pro Swim Series. She swam the 1,500 freestyle in 15 minutes, 20.48 seconds, besting her old record by five full seconds. So don't be surprised to see Ledecky break more world records in Toyko.

Ruck's silver in the 4x100m medley relay was her 8th medal of the Games, tying the all-time single Commonwealth record. 2:37

Where's Penny?

At this point you may be wondering why Oleksiak has barely been mentioned. Well, in a turn of events, the four-time Olympic medallist pulled out of this competition.

The decision came after last month's Canadian trials, which also acted as qualifiers for the Pan Pacs. The Toronto native made the team by winning the 100 freestyle and butterfly, but didn't come close to her personal best times.

So Oleksiak and her team decided now was the time to take a break, then come back rested and ready to focus on Tokyo 2020.

One place Oleksiak will be missed this week is in the women's relays. She helped Canada to two Olympic relay medals in Rio, and another two at the Commonwealth Games. With Oleksiak, the Canadian women are typically contenders for medals. Without her, it won't be as easy to make the podium.

After qualifying for the team, Penny Oleksiak is playing the long game and has decided to pull out of the 2018 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships. 3:01

Japan's rising star

Fans in Tokyo will get a chance to see one of their own take to the pool. Rikako Ikee, 18, is a star on the rise who is expected to emerge as Japan's next great swimmer.

Ikee first burst onto the national stage as a 15-year-old, where she won gold medals in the 50 and 100 butterfly events at the 2015 world junior swimming championships.

At the Olympic Games in Rio, she broke her own national record with a time of 57.27 in the 100 butterfly.  

"Japan has a budding superstar," CBC Sports analyst Byron MacDonald said of Ikee. "She will be the talk of the Games in 2020 and the Pan Pacs is her coming out party. She should win the 100 butterfly and medal or challenge in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle."

Thormeyer leads Canadian men

On the men's side, watch out for Canadian Markus Thormeyer — which won't be hard as he stands out in a crowd at six-foot-six.

The 20-year-old recently won Commonwealth bronze in the 100 backstroke, and will compete in select backstroke and freestyle events in Tokyo. It'd be a fantastic showing if he made the podium, but regardless, he's a name to know heading to the 2020 Games.

In the freestyle event, Thormeyer will face American heavyweight Caeleb Dressel. The two-time Olympic gold medallist and seven-time world champion had a rough showing at the U.S. Trials, but it's possible the 21-year-old was waiting for Pan Pacs to go full throttle. Some anticipate Dressel might even break Michael Phelps' world record in the 100 butterfly (49.82).

Tough schedule for Canadians

Pan Pacs will be the end of a long year for many Canadian swimmers.

Usually swimmers have one major meet per year each summer. In 2018, the Canadians had the Commonwealth Games in April, followed by Canadian trials in July with a quick turnaround to Pan Pacs. Some athletes, like the Australians, are dealing with a similar work load. Others, like the Japanese, come into to the meet relatively fresh.

Regardless, Team Canada is expected to bring home a few medals from this event. The Pan Pacific championships also take place across the street from the Olympic Aquatic Centre construction site. So in two years, almost to the day, these swimmers will come back the same location to fight for Olympic medals.

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