Swimming·CBC SPORTS IN TOKYO

Canadian swimmers look to resume the pool party they started in Rio

Five years ago in Rio, on opening medal night of competition, it was the Canadian women’s freestyle relay team that got the pool party started by winning a bronze. So on the opening night of swimming at the Olympics inside the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Saturday, the high-powered Canadian women finally got to show their stuff.

High-powered women's team began heats on Day 1 in Tokyo

Canada's Maggie Mac Neil swims in a heat for the women's 100-metre butterfly at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on Saturday in Tokyo, Japan. (Martin Meissner/The Associated Press)

Five years ago in Rio, on opening medal night of competition, it was the Canadian women's 4x100m freestyle relay team that got the pool party started by winning a bronze.

The current Canadian swimmers, some who were on that team that bronze-medal night in Brazil, talked about how important it was to have success early. 

It created a tidal wave of momentum the Canadian women rode throughout the Games and have been building on since then – they would rack up six medals in the pool during the Games, the third-most by a Canadian swimming team at the Olympics. 

And so on the opening night of swimming at the Olympics inside the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Saturday, the high-powered Canadian women finally got to show their stuff.

Canada's 4x100m freestyle relay team finished with the third-fastest time of the night, a combined three minutes 33.72 seconds, just behind the Netherlands and powerhouse Australians.

Olympic champion Penny Oleksiak anchored the team and swam a strong final 100.

"I think we've all just been really anxious and waiting for this," she told CBC Sports after the race.

"To finally be here, race together, we're really excited to do that and just get up on the world stage and show them what we got."

Kayla Sanchez led the team into the pool to begin the race, followed by Taylor Ruck. Rebecca Smith set the stage for Oleksiak's strong finish.

"We have such a special group of girls that have trained together every day for the past year," Sanchez said. "We haven't had a chance to step up on the big stage and this is really our chance and we're loving it."

Sanchez, 20, and Smith, 21, are making their Olympic debuts, while Ruck and Oleksiak were part of the team that won bronze in this event in Rio.

"We push each other day in and day out. We go back to the world junior days. To do it at the Olympics is so special," Ruck said. 

While most venues at these pandemic Olympics are mostly silent, with no music or crowd noise being pumped in, that wasn't the case at the pool.

Inside the massive, brilliant, empty Tokyo Aquatics Centre they pumped in some music as the swimmers competed. Most of the 14,000 seats sat empty, except for some of the team members of the competitors who cheered as they swam.

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"You don't notice it. We're just so focused on our own performance. We don't really look around. You still feel the atmosphere. Big lights," Smith said. 

Relays have been a focus for the Canadian swimming program.

Swimming Canada's high performance director John Atkinson has talked at length about how great swimming nations have depth and because of that depth, perform in the relays.

"I'm lucky, especially training with the relay girls the last few years," Oleksiak said. 

"Where one person isn't good at something, the other girl is. You always have someone pushing you."

The swimmers, especially the women's team, have talked about how they build off one another and feel stronger than ever coming into Tokyo despite having faced more restrictions than most of the swimmers around the world.

Mac Neil moves on to semifinals

Katerine Savard and Maggie Mac Neil were the first Canadian swimmers to take to the Tokyo Aquatics Centre water. 

Mac Neil, 21, is the 2019 world champion and Canadian record holder. She made the difficult decision to leave her training facility in Michigan this past spring and return to Canada early because of quarantine restrictions.

"It was the right call looking back on it. I've seen my backstroke and freestyle have improved immensely since I arrived and that's just being able to train with the best we have in Canada," she told CBC Sports back in June.

In her first race of the Olympics Mac Neil swam a time of 56.55, the fifth-fastest of all the 100m butterfly heats, setting her up for a podium push. She'll compete in the semifinal on Sunday.

WATCH | Maggie Mac Neil advances to semis:

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"It was good. Get my first race under my belt," she said after her race. "I always want to work on my second 50m, I felt it wasn't as strong as I would have liked. So I think that's the goal for tomorrow," she said.

This was Mac Neil's first race at the Olympics. 

"It doesn't even feel real yet. I'm really loving it. It's my first village experience."

Sarah Sjoestroem, the world and Olympic record holder in the 100m butterfly, won her heat in 56.18 – the third-fastest time of the night in the event. 

Savard finished in 57.51 And did not advance to the semifinal.

Pickrem scratched from 400 IM

Less than an hour away from the first night of competition at the pool Swimming Canada confirmed Sydney Pickrem would not be competing in the women's 400m individual medley. 

"Sydney Pickrem is withdrawing from the 400m individual medley due to medical reasons not related to COVID-19," said Atkinson in a statement.

"We have made this decision in consultation with Sydney, our national team medical staff and her coach Ben Titley at the High Performance Centre – Ontario to protect her performances for the rest of the Olympic Games."

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Pickrem, from Halifax, won three bronze medals at the last world championship, one as a part of the women's 4x100m medley that set a Canadian record.

Atkinson says with a busy program consisting of two other individual events which include heats, semifinals and finals, and may also include relays, the decision is in the best interest of Pickrem.

"Our focus turns to supporting Sydney in her preparation for the 200m individual medley in two days' time," Atkinson said.

In other events involving Canadians in the pool, Tessa Cieplucha finished with a time of 4:44.54 in the women's 400m IM but did not advance to the final.

Gabe Mastromatteo, in his Olympic debut, finished in a time of 1:01.56 the men's 100m breaststroke. He will not be advancing in the event.

After a night of heats, there are now eight consecutive days of medals events in the pool.

Canada will look to either duplicate their bronze in Rio or better it in the women's 4x100m women's relay final on Sunday morning in Tokyo.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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