Canada's Ryan Cochrane announces retirement from swimming

Two-time Olympic medallist Ryan Cochrane, who won a Canadian record eight world championship medals, announced his retirement from competitive swimming Tuesday.

2-time Olympic medallist brought back a winning attitude to a 'waning' swim program

Scott Russell goes 1-on-1 with Ryan Cochrane

6 years ago
Duration 9:24
Canadian star discusses the highlights of a landmark career

Two-time Olympic medallist Ryan Cochrane, who won a Canadian record eight world championship medals, announced his retirement from competitive swimming Tuesday through his Player's Own Voice piece to CBC Sports.

"Since the Games in Rio, I've been asked time and time again what my plan for the future holds," said Cochrane. "I have been flipping back and forth with gut-reaction emotions, moments of rational perspective, and oh-so-many moments of absolute uncertainty. 

"Today though, I'm announcing my retirement from competitive swimming, starting a new chapter in my life and looking to find something that will provide me with new purpose and goals to chase."

The 28-year-old from Victoria had said last summer that the Rio Olympics would be his last. He went on to finish sixth in his signature 1,500-metre freestyle event and failed to reach the final in the 400.

"He was a dominant, dominant player on the world scene for virtually a decade. That speaks volumes of an elite performer," said Byron MacDonald, CBC Sports swimming analyst and head coach at the University of Toronto.

Cochrane made his senior international debut in 2006 and broke through as a green 19-year-old at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games with a bronze medal, Canada's first Olympic swimming medal since Sydney 2000 and first Olympic medal in the 1,500 in 88 years.

A 19-year-old Ryan Cochrane swims to a bronze medal in the men's 1,500-metre freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Canada's first Olympic podium finish since the 2000 Sydney Games. (Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press/File)

With that performance, many believed the six-foot-three athlete had resurrected a Canadian swim program that had produced one medal at Sydney and was kept completely off the podium at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

"It was so amazing the positive effect that had on the national team," MacDonald recalled. "He stimulated Canadian swim development in 2008, got it back on track and then he kept it on track for the next 10 years."

MacDonald added Cochrane leaves two legacies: Bringing back a winning attitude to a "waning" program and becoming one of the most consistent performers in the history of Canadian swimming.

Cochrane won his seventh and eighth world medals leading into Rio, claiming bronze in the 400 and 1,500 in Kazan, Russia, but it was clear at the Olympics that a younger generation had taken over his event.

At 27 in Rio, Cochrane was the oldest swimmer in the 1,500 and finished in 14 minutes 49.61 seconds, more than 15 seconds slower than 21-year-old winner Gregorio Paltrinieri (14:34.57) of Italy.

"It's a pretty tough event he was swimming," said MacDonald. "The 1,500 is not one minute of work. It's 15 minutes of pretty dastardly stuff. He may have been running out of gas anyway. We're still talking about an incredible world-class performance."

Hilary Caldwell, who won bronze for Canada in the women's 200 backstroke at the Rio Olympics, is grateful to have had the chance to train with Cochrane for eight years.

"Beyond his ability to work hard in training … I was infinitely impressed with the mental toughness and consistency when it came to racing," Caldwell said in a Swimming Canada news release. "It took me getting to a top three in the world performance one year and experiencing how hard it was to replicate that performance the next year to really appreciate how amazing Ryan was as an athlete."

MacDonald doesn't see an heir apparent to Cochrane on the Canadian squad, someone that can be relied on to get the men to the podium but added "the one beauty of the national team is that it's co-ed. The women look like they're going to be world-beaters at this point [led by four-time Olympic medallist Penny Oleksiak]."

Cochrane inspired the 16-year-old Oleksiak, who won four medals in Rio, before she entertained the idea of making the national team.

Elusive Olympic, world titles

"He was not only Canada's most successful swimmer," she said, "but he always seemed to achieve his results with a smile and always had time for the younger athletes."

Cochrane added his second Olympic medal with silver in the 1,500 at the 2012 London Games, but Olympic and world gold eluded him the last decade.

In 2008, MacDonald suggested, Cochrane probably didn't know how good he was and didn't have the experience to overcome the challenges required to stand atop the podium.

After Cochrane broke the Olympic record in the preliminaries in Beijing and qualified first for the final, the Australians changed their entire strategy to address the Canadian, said MacDonald.

"They went mano a mano on Ryan and they had their big guy make a move at the 1,100-metre mark and it worked," he added. "Ryan didn't quite know how to respond because he wasn't aware of what was happening at the time and he'd never really been challenged like that. They [Australians] realized this kid was unbridled."

China's Sun Yang was the one man that prevented Cochrane from achieving ultimate success. Victory in London seemed within the Canadian's reach but Yang denied him at every turn. At the world championships in 2011, Yang beat Cochrane by more than 10 seconds en route to a world record in Shanghai. Cochrane raced more effectively the following year at the Olympics but finished 8.61 seconds behind Yang.

In 2014, Yang was suspended three months for testing positive for the stimulant trimetazidine, a drug used to treat angina.

"It's pretty tough to beat somebody that's under a regime that appears to have been chemically assisted," said MacDonald, adding Cochrane was still swimming at an elite level at the time.

Cochrane also won double gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and 2014.

A graduate from the University of Victoria in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, he became only the second person (after Australian legend Grant Hackett) to reach the podium in the 800 and 1,500 events at three consecutive worlds.

He was the bedrock of the national team and you always knew he would be able to perform.— Canadian national swim team coach Ryan Mallette on the retiring Ryan Cochrane

In 2015, Cochrane came off a double gold performance at the Pan Am Games in Toronto to capture his first world medal in the 400, a bronze, and duplicated that result in the 1,500.

It was a remarkable stretch for Cochrane considering the success came shortly after the death of his longtime coach Randy Bennett earlier that year.

MacDonald said it seemed Cochrane wasn't quite 100 per cent at the Rio Olympic trials three weeks before Bennett's passing from skin cancer at 51 in April 2015, "even though he was giving it every impression and talking himself into it." Cochrane's winning time of 15:00.75 in the 1,500 was 21 seconds off his personal best of 14:39.63, set at the London Olympics.

National swim team coach Ryan Mallette said Cochrane taught a generation of athletes how to be repeatable and reliable.

"He was the bedrock of the national team and you always knew he would be able to perform," Mallette told Swimming Canada. "Ryan was working harder than anyone else in the world to achieve his goals.

"It was an honour and a privilege to be able to work with the most consistent swimmer in Canadian history."

Among Cochrane's other achievements in the pool are six medals at the Pan Pacific Championships, including three gold, and being named male swimmer of the year by Swimming Canada from 2008 to 2015.

Looking forward, he will be joining Synchronous ERP, a Victoria-based software company "which shares many of the values I've cultivated during my time in sport."


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