Kind of like sisters: McKay-Benfeito partnership stronger than ever with Olympics looming

There's no Olympic-sized rewards awaiting Caeli McKay and Meaghan Benfeito at the Pan Am Games. That doesn't mean the competition in Peru won't be any less special for both divers, who will be celebrating polar-opposite milestones.

Team Canada divers in Peru competing at Pan American Games

Canadians Caeli McKay, left, and Meaghan Benfeito, right, practice together ahead of the Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru. CBC Sports caught up with the pair during a training session on Thursday. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

LIMA, Peru — There's no Olympic-sized rewards awaiting Caeli McKay and Meaghan Benfeito at the Pan Am Games. The business of qualifying Canadian spots for Tokyo 2020 as individual 10-metre platform divers was taken care of last month in South Korea.

That doesn't mean the competition in Peru won't be any less special for both divers, who will be celebrating polar-opposite milestones.

This is the first Pan Am Games for McKay, the 20-year-old who began diving with the national team in 2017. Benfeito is her teammate and partner in the 10m synchro, but is also 10 years her senior and calling this her final competition at the best-of-the-Americas event.

"It's going to be my last Pan Ams, so I'm going to try and enjoy it even more than all the other ones," Benfeito says. "Being [Caeli's] first and my last, that will be something special together."

Benfeito has mentored McKay through many of her international diving firsts, but it's taken a lot of time and experience to build the trust needed between two people who quite literally need to be perfectly in sync.

Far from home

The two divers were partnered up in 2017 after Benfeito said goodbye to long-time partner Roseline Filion, who retired after the Rio Olympics.

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The opportunity to join the national team and Benfeito convinced McKay to move across the country as a 16-year-old, away from her family's home in Calgary, to join Benfeito and her family in Montreal. McKay lived with the Benfeitos for about five months, getting to spend as much time as possible with her new training partner, who she describes as her idol growing up.

Canadians Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay will dive together in the women's synchronized 10m platform event and individually in the women's 10m platform during the Pan Am Games. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

"It was really just to get to know each other," McKay says of the living arrangements. "We would talk a little at competitions but we would never really get one-on-one time, so being together 24/7 for five months, that'll do it.

"It kind of felt like [we're] sisters after living together for five months."

Even with the support from her idol-turned mentor, McKay struggled.

"It was a very, very hard transition for me," McKay says. "I was only 16 when I left and my family stayed in Calgary.

"Having to start over and make new friends and be on the team with people I had never really talked to, only seen on TV, I was very, very intimidated by everybody. I felt quite like a misfit at the beginning and felt like I really had to earn my place on the team."

Benfeito says it wasn't the smoothest start to their partnership, as McKay was still finding her way on a new team with high expectations.

"It was hard at the beginning," Benfeito says. "Our first year in 2017 was... I'm not going to say 'a disaster' because we were learning things together, [but] she needed to learn everything on her own. There's [only] so much I can help with.

"Caeli was just kind of put onto a team where she was the youngest one and you're like 'here, deal with it.'"

Canadians Caeli McKay, left, and Meaghan Benfeito, right, practice together. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

McKay says the growing pains were real, but it all worked out for the best because it forced her to work harder. 

"It made me learn how to be an individual diver and made me learn how to push my limits," she says. "I'm finally feeling at home in Montreal. This is the first year I'm finally feeling at home."

She also gets to see a lot more of someone else she used to idolize when she was growing up and working at her diving in Calgary.

"It's not weird anymore," McKay laughs, "but my boyfriend, Vincent Riendeau, was one of my inspirations growing up. My coach would show his videos for technique he wanted us to do. So we kind of grew up watching him diving all the time.

"Being on the team with them all now is pretty special having grown up watching them all."

Work remains to be done ahead of Tokyo

While the world aquatics championships guaranteed Canada a pair of spots in the individual 10m women's platform, McKay and Benfeito came up agonizingly short to qualify a synchro team for Tokyo.

Less than a point — 0.81 to be precise — kept the Canadians off the podium and searching for another chance to book a spot in Tokyo together. After McKay missed on the team's final dive, her idol-turned-mentor-turned-sister was quick to break in and remind her that there will be days like this.

"I told her not to worry about it, it's her first pre-Olympic year [and] I know how she feels. It's not the first time it's happened to me," Benfeito told CBC Sports reporter Sophia Jurksztowicz. "We just need to work on getting to the podium at the World Cup so we're at Tokyo in 2020.

"We learn from our mistakes and that's what makes us a strong team."

Carving out her own place 

One of the issues the pair have worked through since the beginning of their partnership was of expectations, trust, and McKay's need for her own identity. Benfeito and Fillion won plenty of medals together over their partnership, including two Olympic bronze. That's not the easiest situation to walk into as a rookie diver on the national team.

"I really felt like I had to fill Roseline's shoes and it took me a really long time to establish myself as a diver rather than Rosie's replacement," McKay says. "That was really one of my goals, to make it Caeli, not Rosie. I wanted to be my own [diver], not like anybody else.

Canadians Caeli McKay, front, and Meaghan Benfeito, back, have had to work to build their partnership. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

"I also felt like I had to prove myself to Meaghan, but…we don't really have to worry about each other's diving anymore. At the beginning, we both worried about what the other one would do and try to compensate or over compensate for one another and now I think we feel each other's rhythm and know each other's strengths and weaknesses and we're able to find a middle ground on the things we're not exactly equal on.

"It's just a deeper understanding of each other and how we are as athletes." Benfeito says the early days of the partnership were a bit rocky, but it all came down to McKay thriving under this pressure to perform, and the team's communication.

"It took us six to eight months to actually figure out 'OK, this is how it is,' and to become fully comfortable. She matured very well and very fast," Benfeito says. "I'm really happy with where we are now. I think our communication is the most important thing in a team." 

Canadians Caeli McKay, left, and Meaghan Benfeito, right, have figured out how to get in sync with their dives. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

Now that they are on the same page, McKay says the expectation at every event is the same.

"Medalling is always a goal," McKay says. "It's my first Pan Am Games so I'm not really sure what to expect [but] it's another big games that I think is going to be good to have under my belt, so I'm excited to experience another first."

McKay will make her debut Pan Am appearance in the individual 10m event on Saturday, before joining Benfeito for the veteran's final competition at Pan Ams in the synchro event on Sunday.

With files from CBC Sports