Kylie Masse 'doesn't know how good she is'
Rising Canadian backstroker ready for short course worlds in her own backyard
Overlooked amid the pandemonium of Penny Oleksiak's four medals, Kylie Masse's surprise bronze helped fuel the stunning renaissance of Canadian women's swimming in Rio.
As Masse, Oleksiak and the rest of Canada's national team descend on Windsor, Ont., for the Dec. 6-11 FINA World Swimming Championships (25m), Masse's breakout Olympic performance looks like a joyful prelude to what could be an extended period of success.
Better known as the short course world championships, the meet will feature up to 1,000 of the world's best swimmers racing in front of thousands of fans at the WFCU Centre, where they've replaced the hockey rink with a specially built pool that is half the length of an Olympic one (CBC Sports' live streaming coverage begins Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. ET).
The short course worlds will be a homecoming of sorts for the 20-year-old Masse, who is from LaSalle, Ont., a bedroom community nestled against the city of Windsor.
You'd never know from the way she handled herself, but the Rio Olympics were Masse's first major international competition.
After her evening semifinal in the women's 100-metre backstroke on Aug. 7, while Oleksiak celebrated her medal from the 100 butterfly, Masse quietly conferred with her coach in the Canadian team pit.
Handing Masse a stopwatch, Linda Kiefer asked her to start and stop it two tenths of a second apart — their projection of how much faster Masse was capable of swimming than her previous best.
"I made her do it about four times," says the wily longtime assistant coach at the University of Toronto. "Then I said, 'Can you find that [in the final]?'"
The trick worked.
The next day, after walking out to the pool with the same lucky loonie in her shoe that Oleksiak had used the night before, Masse touched exactly three-tenths faster than her own Canadian record, tying China's Fu Yuanhui for the bronze medal.
"Realizing that it was that close I think gave me hope," says Masse.
The bronze was part of a head-spinning turnaround by the Canadian women's swim team. After going four straight Olympics without winning a medal, it left Rio with six.
In a search of the world swimming rankings for 2014, Kylie Masse's name doesn't turn up until the fourth page, 201st overall.
A stumble and a triumph the following season set the stage for her Rio emergence.
In April 2015, at the Canadian team's selection meet for the Toronto Pan American Games, Masse faded in the final 25 metres of the deciding race and missed the cut.
After that disappointment, Masse went to work with Kiefer and fellow U of T coach Byron MacDonald on improving her closing 25 metres all spring and summer.
Instead of competing close to home in Toronto that July, Masse travelled to the lesser-known World University Games in Gwangju, Korea.
Far away from the attention of the Canadian sports world, she won the 100 backstroke, swimming under one minute for the first time.
"That's a major-league barrier, to get under a minute," says MacDonald, also an analyst for CBC Sports. "So now we're in a fairly good position to start thinking about going to the Olympic Games."
Kiefer and MacDonald figured she could swim 59.10 seconds at the Canadian Olympic trials in April 2016, and Masse beat that expectation. She broke the Canadian record with a clocking of 59.06 — at the time the second-fastest mark in the world.
In just over 15 months, Masse had jumped almost 200 spots in the world rankings. Four months later, she'd shave her national-record time down to 58.76 in the Olympic final, then to 58.66 as part of the medley relay.
In 2012, while Masse was in high school in LaSalle, the short course world championships were awarded to Windsor. At the time it felt so far away.
"Now, to be on the other side of that and participating in it, it's crazy," says Masse. "Being from a small town, not a lot of people know about swimming."
That figures to change as event organizers expect 35,000 spectators to attend the week-long meet.
For Masse, it will be another chance to perform at an international competition — and continue her ascent.
"Our goal is to get her to be world champion," says Kiefer. "She doesn't know how good she is."