Kylie Masse: Made in Canada

Kylie Masse’s landmark swim in the 100-metre backstroke at the world championships was a triumph for both the athlete and the Canadian university sports system that helped make her a champion.

Record-breaking swimmer shows Canadian schools can still produce champions

Like many successful swimmers before her, backstroke world champion Kylie Masse is a proud product of the Canadian university system. (Martin Bureau/Getty Images)

Kylie Masse's landmark swim in the 100-metre backstroke at the world aquatics championships in Budapest, Hungary, heralds a victory on several Canadian fronts.

It's a very personal win for a young athlete who was, not so long ago, on nobody's radar. Now she's the fastest there's ever been in her chosen race, a world record holder.

Her achievement is also cause for Swimming Canada to celebrate. They have helped to produce the country's first female world champion in this aquatic discipline.

Canada's Kylie Masse wins world title, sets world record

6 years ago
Duration 0:32
Kylie Masse sets a world record time of of 58.10 seconds in the 100-metre backstroke and becomes the first Canadian woman to win a world swimming championship.

But if you take a deeper dive, there is also the triumph of the student-athlete to consider.

Masse studies kinesiology full-time at the University of Toronto and is an award-winning athlete not only because of what she does in the pool with her collegiate squad, the Varsity Blues, but also because of her commitment to sportsmanship and the leadership qualities she possesses.

In 2016, Masse won the BLG (Borden Ladner Gervais LLP) Award as the top female student-athlete in the Canadian U Sports system. With it goes a $10,000 post-graduate scholarship to a Canadian university.

"I love being a part of that team," she said after adding a bronze medal in the mixed medley relay at worlds. "It's just so much better when you are around a group of people who are going through the same things as you are in training and in school. It helps to motivate you."

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6 years ago
Duration 4:25
World record-breaking Canadian swimmer reflects on her performances at the world aquatics championships.

Home grown

For many observers, it has always been assumed that Canada's top high-performance athletes tend to gravitate to the United States for at least part of their training because the collegiate sports scholarship system in that country is a huge source of funding.

Such a system does not exist in Canada.

But Masse is a clear indicator that Canadian university sport is still fertile ground for nurturing champions.

Fully 25 per cent of the current Canadian senior swim team competing in Budapest is comprised of athletes who suit up for domestic universities, including Masse and Yuri Kisil of the University of British Columbia.

Both were essential components of the medley medal.

In fact, a check of the history shows that, with one exception, every swimmer to have won a medal in an individual event at the Olympic Games for Canada was trained exclusively in this country.

The exception is Ralph Hutton of B.C., who won silver in the 400m freestyle at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. While the bulk of his training was in Canada, he is also a revered graduate of Colorado State University and is in the sports Hall of Fame there.

"One of the special things about Kylie, to me, is that she is home grown," said one of her coaches, Byron MacDonald, who heads up the University of Toronto swimming team.

"She remained in Canada for university and made her giant strides on the world stage because of the swim program at the University of Toronto. While receiving less glamour than their NCAA counterparts, the Canadian university swim program constantly produces top athletes."

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6 years ago
Duration 3:19
LaSalle, Ont., native becomes 1st Canadian female swimmer to win a world title.

School and sports

Masse's coach on the ground in Hungary agrees. Linda Kiefer trains Masse daily at the University of Toronto and was positively buoyant at what the result means to the overall landscape of the sport in Canada.

"Her swim was a great success for herself and Team Canada but also for Canadian university swimming," Kiefer said via email from Budapest.

"She loves swimming for the Varsity Blues just as much as she does for Canada. Swimmers like her are showing that you can combine full-time academics and swimming at this level."

Athletes who have combined academics with their exploits on the field of play have a long and rich history in Canada. Most recently, Rosie MacLennan, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, won her second consecutive gold medal in trampoline gymnastics at the Rio Olympics.

Bruce Kidd, the principal of the University of Toronto Scarborough and a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, has written extensively on issues of gender equity and racial discrimination in sport. He has also been an Olympian and a Commonwealth Games champion as a distance runner.

In Masse's world-record victory in the backstroke, he sees much more than a medal for a Canadian swimmer. He believes it not only adds to the lustre but fortifies the place of the student-athlete in Canadian university sport.

"Who says you have to leave Toronto and Canada to be one of the best?!" exclaimed a jubilant Kidd.

"We're just so proud of her. It's a tribute to her remarkable personal qualities, her coaches at U of T and the Canadian Sports Centre Ontario. Kylie is just another one who proves that you can attend and benefit from an outstanding academic program in one of the best universities in the world, while pursuing your athletic dreams — all right here in Canada."

Scott Russell on Kylie Masse's historic performance

6 years ago
Duration 3:38
CBC Sports hosts says the Canadian women's team is becoming a powerhouse.

Perfect balance

For her part, Masse took some time to consider what her life as a student-athlete has meant. She sent her response via email though her coach Linda Kiefer.

"She's a perfectionist and new to this media thing," Kiefer remarked. "She wants everything to be perfect."

Kylie's quote was concise and to the point: "Life is about balance," she wrote.

"The skills I have learned through swimming and academics go hand in hand and they complement each other so well."

The proof of that is what she's done in the pool.

Kylie Masse is a student of the game and 100 per cent Canadian made


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House.