Road to Tokyo gets real for Canadian swimmers at Olympic trials

After three different attempts to get into the pool, Canadian swimmers take the plunge as the Olympic trials begin in Toronto.

185 athletes competing for remaining spots on national team

Nearly 200 swimmers will compete for spots on Canada's Olympic team in Toronto this weekend. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

After three different attempts to get into the pool to complete the crucial Olympic swim trials, Canadian swimmers are ready for competition. 

To say it's been a frustrating, anxiety-inducing and stressful journey is an understatement. Canadian swimmers, coaches and officials have spent the past 14 months navigating 14-day quarantines, ever-changing restrictions and the rescheduling of event after event.

But now they take the plunge into the deep end and begin the pressure-packed task of qualifying for Tokyo. The event runs June 19-23 at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre and will be streamed live by CBC Sports.

These are no ordinary trials. They get underway about two months later than they would in a typical Olympic year when the team would have already been selected and would have had 12 to 14 weeks of preparation before a Games. There will be no fans or family to help create energy inside the venue.

And there will be hundreds of fewer athletes competing. At the last Olympic trials prior to Rio five years ago, upward of 760 athletes were competing for spots on the Canadian team. This year, there will be 185 swimmers looking to earn their ticket to Tokyo. 

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"It's been a roller-coaster," high performance director John Atkinson said. "The first trials were penned in for April and then pushed to May. Then the May trials were delayed to the backup date. It can have both an emotional and psychological impact on people that are involved in that.

"The big issue is what is the impact of the pandemic," Atkinson said. "We have not been together as a team since the worlds in 2019. We've done virtual calls and all the things you can do over the last 14 months."

There are so many unknowns and yet there are also great expectations. This is a swimming squad that surprised many with six medals in Rio, led by then 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak. Atkinson says the team flew under the radar then but there's no doing that now.

Canadian swimmers picked up eight medals at the 2019 world championships, and a core group of high-powered women is likely who will propel the team to any success in Tokyo.

Swimming Canada has already nominated six swimmers: Toronto's Oleksiak; world backstroke champion Kylie Masse of LaSalle, Ont.; world butterfly champion Margaret MacNeil of London, Ont.; Taylor Ruck of Kelowna, B.C.; Sydney Pickrem of Halifax; and Markus Thormeyer of Newmarket, Ont.

The rest will be determined after numerous heats and finals over the five days of competition. Atkinson expects the team to consist of about 25 athletes, with anywhere from 15 to 16 of the members being women.

"I think all of our team, not just Penny, are capable of more than they've already achieved," Atkinson said. 

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While those six have already made the team, there's still a lot to prove and spots to earn. Atkinson says he's excited to see how the swimmers perform because it's been a long time since they've had to compete on demand.

"You have to stand up and perform on demand. I'm not talking about medals with anyone," he said. "I'm talking about improving and progressing."

But he cautions there are always expectations of success.

"We're not going there to take part. We're going there to win medals. But the process is always about improving."

Atkinson credits the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games — when Canadian fans packed the venue and watched Canadian swimmers haul in medals — as a turning point for the program. The energy in the building during that event triggered a swagger and confidence leading into Rio.

There won't be a familiar energy in that same venue for these trials, but Atkinson says the team culture is as good as it's ever been, rooted in a number of different principles.

"Professional. Focused. Relaxed. Adaptable," he said. "And no drama."

No drama, but Atkinson wants to see dramatic and dynamic performances. The bright lights of the sporting world are now fixed on Canadian swimmers after their coming out party in Rio. It's something this team is ready to embrace.

"There will be joy and excitement. We'll be moving forward together to take on the world," he said.


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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