Commonwealth Games

Commonwealth Games

Canada's Kylie Masse wants to live in the fast lane

While Kylie Masse and Penny Oleksiak come into the Commonwealth Games on different levels of performance, each is being counted on as leaders of Canada's swim team.

Windsor-born swimmer's coach says she's a good bet to break her own world record

Canada's Kylie Masse, shown celebrating her world record in the 100-metre backstroke last July, is expected to have a good showing at the Commonwealth Games in Australia. (Michael Sohn/Canadian Press)

Before the Olympic medals, before the world record, Canadian swimmer Kylie Masse had a pre-race routine.

"Kylie used to look at the heat sheet for whatever race she was in and say, 'What lane am I in?" explains Byron MacDonald, her coach at the University of Toronto.

"The fastest swimmers are given lane four, so it's like, 'Kylie, don't worry what lane you are in, it's going to be lane four.'"

MacDonald says it hasn't always been easy for the Windsor-born swimmer to deal with what has been a rapid rise in the sport. The veteran coach says there are two monumental achievements for swimmers: winning an Olympic medal and setting a world record.

Masse has already checked off both.

At the Rio Olympics in 2016 she captured bronze in the 100-metre backstroke, setting a Canadian record in the process. 

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Then last year at the world championships in Hungary, Masse clocked the fastest time ever in the 100 backstroke.

"The beauty for Kylie is she is so young on the international scene that we never built toward these things," MacDonald says. "We weren't even sure she would be on the Olympic team. And the world record was just the logical next step. The obvious question now is can [she] refocus?"

Masse 'not slowing down'

Dave Ling has coached many of Canada's elite swimmers and predicts Masse will continue her success at the Commonwealth Games, where she will swim her individual events and participate in the 400x100 medley relay.

"She is showing no signs of slowing down," says Ling, head coach at St. John's Legends swim club in Newfoundland. "She has gone from being very fast within the country, to very fast within the world to being the fastest who has ever swam her event in the 100 backstroke.

"Her capacity to continue to break the world record she set is out there."

For her part, Masse is confident.

"I'm just really looking forward to the Commonwealth Games and working on what I've been doing all year," Masse says. "I'm just swimming a few backstrokes and then the relay with Penny [Oleksiak], so relays are always fun and really special to be a part of.

"To be able to swim with three other girls and really represent Canada, I think that's what we're going to try to do as best as possible."

For Oleksiak, the months leading up to these Commonwealth Games haven't been quite as successful.

Penny Oleksiak, shown at the 2017 Canadian Screen Awards, has seen the demands on her time for events and sponsorships increase since winning gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The 17-year-old Torontonian burst onto the world scene at the 2016 Olympics. Few were talking about Oleksiak before the Games, but by the time they were over, she had won four medals and was a household name in Canada.

Oleksiak's newfound popularity cued up a whirlwind of endorsements, appearances and new responsibilities that continue today.

MacDonald says Oleksiak's performance in the pool has been sporadic since Rio. Hampered by a series of injuries, Oleksiak failed to reach the podium in any individual events during the 2017 season.

"I think she is still dealing with the unbelievable amount of attention and exhilaration from Rio. It's still happening," MacDonald says. "There are still demands on her time to be Penny Oleksiak and she has had a hard time getting back to the grind of daily training."

Mistake to underestimate Oleksiak

It would be a mistake to underestimate Oleksiak says Ling, who has worked with her in the past.

"I will tell you from first-hand experience, her talent is prodigious," Ling says. "I think these Games will be a chance for her to show at an international level what she can do and what she wants to do going into 2020. This will be her chance to show it."

"It would be very easy for people to write her off as a flash in the pan. But I've been watching her since she was 11 years old and I will not be betting against her."

Oleksiak will swim in eight events at the Commonwealth Games, including three relays.

"I'm just excited to get to the meet, get on some relays and get to be on another relay with Kylie and hopefully do well on that [4x100m] medley," Oleksiak said on a conference call last week. "Overall, I think it's going to be a good time."

Things won't be easy for the Canadian team at the Commonwealth Games. MacDonald says the Australians continue to be some the strongest swimmers in the world. And after years of mediocrity, British swimmers are among the top-five nations in the world. 

Masse and Oleksiak are joined on the women's team by 17-year-old Taylor Ruck, who has put up some blistering times in recent months.

Experts say what we see in Australia will be the core of the team at the Olympics in two years in Tokyo.

"There's a young contingent of Canadian girls that certainly are very competitive and hyper-talented," Ling says. "These are the women Swim Canada has invested heavily in and already seen very good returns.

"It's a young and fast team."
 

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