Ryan Cochrane: The man who saved Canadian swimming

Ryan Cochrane: The man who saved Canadian swimming

Victoria native rescued a program in shambles

By Tony Care, CBC Sports
April 8, 2015
The bronze medal Ryan Cochrane, left, won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics gave Canadian swimming one of the biggest boosts in its history. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press) The bronze medal Ryan Cochrane, left, won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics gave Canadian swimming one of the biggest boosts in its history. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Ryan Cochrane is not an alpha male.

He doesn’t lead with a booming voice or show any hint of bravado.

Instead, the even-keeled Canadian swimmer gets the attention of his younger compatriots in the area that matters most: results. 

It’s the reason he’s been able to sustain a level of excellence for nearly a decade, which includes two Olympic medals and six world championship medals – the latter being the most ever by a Canadian swimmer.

But don’t let his quiet demeanour fool you. Cochrane has plenty of confidence.

“I think everyone is beatable,” the 26-year-old Victoria native told CBCSports.ca in explaining his total lack of intimidation towards his competition.

“I’ve been very lucky…I don’t know where I developed this line of thought from as a kid. I always appreciated all the work everyone did but I never had idols growing up. I never had a sporting idol.”

That’s been evident ever since Cochrane broke through as a green 19-year-old at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Ryan Cochrane explains why he was so livid for “only” winning bronze in Beijing.

The Olympic Rings tattooed just below his left shoulder are fitting, considering he resurrected a program in shambles.

He’s never won an Olympic gold medal or earned a world title, yet the bronze Cochrane captured in Beijing was one of the most significant moments in the nation’s swimming history.

Here’s why.

Canadian swimmers were shut out of the medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, drawing severe criticism in the process.

Canada was heading for the same fate four years later in Beijing.

Brent Hayden, the 2007 co-world champion in the 100-metre freestyle, and the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team flamed out. Mike Brown finished an agonizing fourth in the 200m breaststroke.

Time was running out. The eulogy was just about written.

Who could possibly come to the rescue?

It just so happened that Cochrane, little known at the time, had more faith in his abilities than his critics. In one of the final events on the swimming docket, he reached the podium in the 1,500m event, a performance he initially was "livid" with.

"I didn't think third was good enough," Cochrane said.

But not all medals are created equally.

This meant more.

“It saved Canadian swimming,” said Byron MacDonald, CBC Sports swimming analyst and head coach at the University of Toronto.

“Obviously in the 80s we had [Olympic champions] Alex Baumann and Victor Davis and that was amazing. But I would argue that Ryan’s presence over the last decade has probably meant as much, if not more, to Canadian swimming than Alex and Victor.

“If we would’ve come out of 2008 without a medal, that would’ve been two Olympics in a row without a medal and there would’ve been so much soul searching. Everybody would’ve questioned everybody. Maybe [longtime national coach] Tom Johnson makes a few decisions that aren’t good for Brent Hayden over the next four years, and Hayden doesn’t get a [bronze] medal [at the 2012 Olympics] in London. Instead, Johnson had the courage to go forward.”

Ryan Cochrane and Brent Hayden use London success to springboard Canada back into swimming spotlight.

How times have changed.

With Cochrane’s silver in the 1,500m, Hayden’s 100m freestyle bronze, and Richard Weinberger's bronze in the 10km open water marathon, Canada reached the Olympic podium three times for the first time since the Atlanta Games in 1996.

New crop

Now a new group of swimmers are beginning to emerge.

In observing Yuri Kisil (Hayden’s heir), Katerine Savard (100m butterfly), Kierra Smith (200m breaststroke), along with freestyle and medley swimmer Emily Overholt, Cochrane believes the future for Canada is even brighter, although he would never take full credit for their progress.

“They have the attitude ‘we’re here for no BS, we're here to race,‘” he said. "We don’t have any tourists on the team anymore. I’d like to think I had a little to do with it but they’ve really grasped on to those ideas and that’s how you’re going to create the next generation.”

The long shadow of Sun Yang

Olympic gold continues to elude Cochrane. The one man preventing him from achieving ultimate success is China’s Sun Yang. When Cochrane began his ascension after Beijing, victory at the London Olympics appeared within his reach.

Yang, however, has denied him at every turn.

In 2011, Yang came on the scene and beat Cochrane by more than 10 seconds en route to a world record in Shanghai.

Cochrane’s performance in London one year later was significantly better, but he was still 8.61 seconds behind Yang, who was now viewed as virtually unbeatable in the eyes of many.


Cochrane was actually 1.33 seconds off Yang's time at the world championships in 2013, proving that his Chinese foe is in fact human.

To that extent, Yang took another hit after he was banned three months in 2014 for testing positive for the stimulant trimetazidine, a drug used to treat angina.

Yang also lost access to his famed Aussie coach Denis Cotterell, who was prevented from continuing his relationship with the Chinese star by Swimming Australia.

To his credit, Cochrane isn’t bothered that Yang wasn’t suspended longer.

“If you go too far down that road of what you’re competitors are doing it can absolutely drive you insane,” he said.

Regardless, Yang remains the gold standard.

Cochrane, who admits the Rio Games will be his last Olympics but plans to compete after 2016, isn’t ready to concede victory to his opponent.

“People said Tiger Woods was never beatable and look at the circumstances now,” Cochrane explains.

"I know that instead of thinking how am I going to beat Sun Yang, it’s more like how am I going to go under the world record? And at that time [in Rio], I’ll be in the mix.”

National coach Randy Bennett: 'Medals matter'

Hard times ahead

Cochrane faces a hectic 16 months. He qualified for July’s Pan Am Games in both the 400m and 1,500m at the recently completed Canadian trials in Toronto.

Then it’s off to the world championships in Russia eight days after the Pan Ams conclude. Of course, all this leads to the Rio Olympics in the summer of 2016. 

But Cochrane’s journey hit an emotional roadblock when news broke that his coach and mentor, Randy Bennett, was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2014. Sadly, Bennett died on Tuesday.

He ran the high performance centre out of Victoria, and was a big part of Canada’s surge over the last six years as national coach, including the success at the London Olympics. 

More importantly, Bennett was Cochrane’s personal coach and confidant for the last 13 years. The relationship went beyond one of a coach and athlete. In many ways, Bennett meant everything to Cochrane's career. 

“I think we’re all still in shock,” Cochrane said prior to Bennett's death. “Seeing anybody go through that is excruciating. You do feel so helpless.

“Having someone that you can trust and you gain that trust through years and years of experience…it’s made a remarkable difference in my life throughout my career. I don’t think either of us could’ve done what we’ve done without each other.

"He’s created this dynamic in Victoria of nothing but the best, we have the best people to work with. Our team is awesome. He’s really tried to push that on the national team. I think he’s left a legacy so far that has really changed the sport as we know it.”

The same could be said about Ryan Cochrane.

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