Road To The Olympic Games


Canada's elite swimmers are quietly flocking to same Toronto area

Olympic champion Penny Oleksiak has always called the Beach neighbourhood home, but now fellow Olympian Taylor Ruck and rising star Rebecca Smith have found a home away from home in Toronto.

Olympians Oleksiak, Ruck and rising star Smith have access to top facilities, coaches

Canada's Taylor Ruck, left, and Penny Oleksiak both live near elite swimming facilities in Toronto's east end. (CBC Sports)

Something unusual is going on in Toronto's east end.

Three of the best young swimmers in the world have quietly made their homes in the same little area within the Beach neighbourhood.

Penny Oleksiak, Taylor Ruck and Rebecca Smith are all living within a towel's throw of one another. In fact, the three teens are now carpooling together to their daily workouts.  

Olympic swimmer, coach and commentator Byron MacDonald described swimming's new power pocket as "probably the highest concentration of world-class 17 year olds in any sport in one small radius!" 

How did this happen? Swimming is big in Canada, but it's not hockey big. Swimming doesn't have the long-established arrangement that allows parents to safely send their 16 year olds off to play major junior hockey in distant cities.

The truth is, it's happening in swimming now because old swimmers stick together. It's happening informally. And it seems to be working fine.

Proximity crucial

John Grootveld swam alongside MacDonald in his day and was also a national coach. He's now the director of business development for the Canadian Sports Institute Ontario, which is located at the Pan Am Sports Centre in Toronto – a national centre for elite swimming.  

Nearby the Pan Am pool, Grootveld worked with West Hill Collegiate to start a program supporting high performance athletes.

Swimmers like Ruck and Oleksiak don't need academic help, but timetable accommodation and teaching support for swimmers who are away competing or training? Crucial. And Grootveld is not one to leave his work at the office. He and his family share their home with Taylor Ruck, whose parents live in Arizona.  

High performance swim coach Ben Titley came to Grootveld earlier this summer to see if he could squeeze the six-foot, 17-year-old Ruck into his home alongside his wife and their six and four year olds. It must be pretty cool for the little kids, who suddenly have a towering Olympian at their breakfast table. 

"Well obviously they love it...She's been wonderful with the kids," Grootveld said. "For Taylor, she's still pretty young, and you know she's here, away from family so it's a big step for her. But I think at the end of the day she knew that this is the best fit."  

There's a reason why swimmers particularly need to find "away housing" for minors. Swimmers don't necessarily peak young, but their window of high performance can open early.

Youth movement

Young athletes in other sports just don't have the quads to lead a pursuit cycling team, or row hard, whereas swimming involves factors beyond sheer muscle. So you can still be very young and very good.  

Taylor Ruck's story is not so different from Rebecca Smith's, who has been living in the exact same corner of the Beach for a year now. Smith caught coach Ben Titley's eye as a rising star in 2016. Rebecca's mother, Sandy, saw the benefit of intense training and her suggestion was: "if we could find a family with some kids, you know, we'd be interested in that." 

Titley put the neighborhood word out. It wasn't exactly "Elite Swimmer: free to a good home!", but still, the offer was there. Ron Watson and his wife, both former University of Toronto swimmers, and their two kids rose to the occasion.

"It's funny in Canada, you have this group of young girls, only 16, 17, 18 years old, and they are super elite athletes in the world, which is kind of a blip," Watson said. "I don't think any other country really has this type of talent at that age level."  

So now, we have Rebecca Smith living just six or seven doors down from the Oleksiaks. Smith's move from Red Deer, Alta., has been smooth for everyone involved.

"We are not proxy parents. Rebecca doesn't need that," Watson said. "She is mature beyond her years and she doesn't need that parenting role."  

Numbers could swell

Smith, Oleksiak and Ruck all live close to the Summerville pool and there are a lot of kids in different swim clubs in the area. "When word got out that Taylor Ruck was moving in, there was a buzz of excitement," Grootveld recalled.   

Local kids also got a thrill from seeing Oleksiak in person. "Ben Titley had Penny bring her medals to the pools one day so the kids got to see that, which was cool," Watson said. "And that's the pool Penny trained at when she was younger. The Beaches have a lot of different athletes so nobody is surprised by it. No neighbourhood kids hanging around for autographs. Although Andrew, [Watson's 11-year-old hockey playing son] got Penny's brother Jamie's NHL autograph." 

If it wasn't for their massive workout load, it sounds like a sweet life for the three girls. They all live in the Beaches and they can hang out together when they want. Rebecca has a car so she kind of chauffeurs them. 

Still, for all the parents involved, it's no small thing, bringing these swimmers into their lives. And they certainly aren't in it for the money.  

"If they're getting access to the facility, the top coaches, all of that? We're in for that," Watson said. "I think it's great what they're doing for Canada. These girls have a chance at winning medals at the Olympics."

Remarkable as it is to have this concentrated cluster of talent. If Grootveld gets his way, the numbers could swell.

"I have two other friends that we used to swim with also living in the Beach. They are sitting in a holding pattern. When the call comes in, we should be able to move on a couple more swimmers after that…I might run out of friends in the Beach…" 

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