Taylor Ruck has all the makings of Canada's next superstar swimmer
19-year-old set multiple records in 2018 while putting the world on notice
In 2016, Penny Oleksiak came out of nowhere to win four medals at the Rio Olympics. A year later, Kylie Masse broke the women's 100-metre backstroke world record. In 2018, Taylor Ruck tied an individual Commonwealth Games record by hauling in eight medals.
It's 2019. Who's next? It may still be Ruck.
The 19-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., seems like the natural choice. She recently completed her first year at Stanford University, the same program that produced American superstar Katie Ledecky. Ruck and Ledecky both specialize in freestyle, though the Canadian is also strong in the backstroke.
Ruck's rise began at the 2016 Olympics when she helped Canada's freestyle relay team win a pair of bronze medals.
Two year later at the Commonwealth Games in Australia, Ruck's record medal haul included gold in the 200 freestyle where she set a meet record, and silver in the 50 freestyle where she set a national record.
Later in the summer, Ruck became the first Canadian to win five individual medals at a single Pan Pacific Championships, widely considered one of the most important competitions on the swimming calendar. In the process, she defeated Ledecky to win gold in the 200 freestyle with a championship-record time of one minute 54.44 seconds.
Pressure spreads thin
The resume reveals what should be the next Canadian swimming superstar. But Ben Titley, a member of the Canadian coaching staff, isn't about to give the edge to Ruck over Oleksiak or Masse.
"You're not going to get the answer out of me on that one," Titley said. "But I think that we have a group of athletes now who can all be successful and I think that it's a lot — I won't say easier because that's the wrong word — it's a better position to be in when that burden is shared as opposed to you being the one person and where the pressure is on."
Of course, Titley isn't going to go on record and discuss his favourites. Titley coached Oleksiak through her sudden burst of fame at the Rio Olympics. And so perhaps he is just trying to keep modest expectations for another young athlete set to possibly swim into superstardom.
"Taylor has to commit to working hard every day, being drama free and doing the best she can," Titley said. "Does she have the ability to be very successful? Yes she does. But so do lots of people in the world. So it's all about how well she handles herself."
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Ruck, for her part, appears unaware of any spotlight currently shining on her or slowly turning her way.
"At the Olympics, it was just like my first taste of huge international competition and I was just like amazed," Ruck said. "I was stupefied, literally. I didn't even know what to do. And then Commonwealths I think it was just kind of different because it was individual as well."
Ruck said her Commonwealth accomplishments never quite hit her because the Pan Pacific meet was right around the corner. Instead, it became a display of what she could achieve on the world stage. The inherent pressure that comes with winning never became a factor.
"I definitely felt at ease, well not at ease, but more confident I guess," she said. "It makes me want to keep working hard. Just put my head down and see if I can beat that time."
Ruck's vast skillset sets her up for another haul at this week's world aquatics championships in Gwangju, Korea, and again in one year at the Tokyo Olympics. In the water, Oleksiak said you need to bring your A game every time against Ruck because she goes all out each time she dives in.
"Racing her is difficult because you don't know what to expect from Taylor — ever. She's an insane racer," Oleksiak said.
Byron MacDonald, CBC Sports analyst and University of Toronto swim coach, also described Ruck as a "fighter in the water." But Ruck still needs the endurance to be able to go from the quarter-final to semifinal to final with matching intensity.
"You're racing a lot, and there are some athletes who could not do that," MacDonald said. "There's no question that they would just collapse after a wild ride. But [Ruck] seems to have a phenomenal physical ability to recover very quickly and use her energy."
At six-foot-one, Ruck is still growing into her body. That means some front-end power is still lacking, making the 50 and 100 races a bit more challenging. That's why MacDonald said that Ruck's best shot at gold at the world championships would come in the 200 freestyle.
"She just seems tailor-made for it," MacDonald said.
Ruck's family moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., when she was just 10 months old and she grew up in the desert until Grade 12 when she returned to Canada in 2017 for her final high school year and a chance to focus on swimming. Her latest move to Stanford in 2018 is one that MacDonald says could be the biggest deterrent to Ruck's success.
That's not to say Stanford boasts a bad swimming program, but MacDonald said three moves in three years is a lot of change for a 19-year-old. Ruck could have stayed at Stanford for her sophomore year, but she chose to redshirt (take the year off of the varsity team) in order to train at the national centre in Toronto in the lead-up to Tokyo. Masse made a similar decision.
"She's a fantastic athlete and a great swimmer," MacDonald said. "She will challenge for medals in 2020 no question. But this summer, just because of the changes and adjustments, she might not quite be 100 per cent."
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The world championships, for Ruck and for everyone else, will prove to be a measuring stick. Another massive medal haul would make Ruck the marquee Canadian swimmer for the second summer in a row.
It would also cement her status as the one to watch in the 2020 Olympics.