After Year of Adapting, ISL Expansion Side Toronto Titans Ready for Opener

Kylie Masse (photo: Mike Lewis)
Kylie Masse at a Toronto Titans practice in Budapest; Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis

The operative word for Rob Kent, the general manager of the Toronto Titans in the International Swimming League, is adaptation.

It applied for a team that had, by his reckoning, 70 to 80 percent of its roster in place last December, when COVID-19 remained a word quarantined to the Asian scientific vernacular. It applied through changes to the international swimming calendar, to the ISL schedule, to the location of the league’s second season, to individual athletes’ situations … to everything that 10 months of a global pandemic can change.

And when the changes hit closer to home last month, Kent was ready to adapt to something that had nothing to do with the pool.

“I think the world has learned that one skill is adaptability, and the ISL certainly learned it,” Kent told Swimming World Wednesday. “And to our credit, we’ve been able to adapt quite well.”

Anton McKee (photo: Mike Lewis)

Anton McKee at a Toronto Titans practice in Budapest; Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS

Kent won’t be in Budapest when the Titans make their debut in Match 3 Saturday, squaring off against the LA Current, Aqua Centurion and fellow expansion side Tokyo Frog Kings.

A diagnosis of prostate cancer has Kent marooned at home in Canada, and while the prognosis is good, he has surgery coming in November. Instead, his son and “right-hand man in this process” Dylan Kent, the team’s assistant GM, is in the Budapest bubble to lead the Titans into existence. They scarcely expect it’ll be the last bit of unexpected adversity to weather in this process. But the Kents are excited to see the work of team-building that began nearly a year ago come to fruition.

The Titans came into existence last December, and the process of recruiting talent is something that Rob Kent speaks fondly of. They were afforded a two-week exclusive period to recruit Canadian talent, wooing much of the bumper crop of the nation’s swimming talents to the team, including seven Canadians who swam in ISL’s inaugural campaign. Among them are Yuri Kisil (formerly of the London Roar), Emily Overholt (NY Breakers) and Kelsey Wog and Kylie Masse (both of the Cali Condors).

With the addition of Brent Hayden, who comes out of retirement, the team is build around a solid Canadian backbone. It would’ve been even more so had Kayla Sanchez not bowed out of the season with a shoulder injury, or if Penny Oleksiak had joined the Titans as rumored.

“We do have some great Canadian talent, on the men’s and women’s sides, but predominantly on the women’s side, and we were more than happy to scoop them up,” Rob Kent said. “But we wouldn’t have taken them if they weren’t good, and they’re good. There were no pity ones where we just took them because they’re Canadian. They’re world-class swimmers.”

The Kents and head coach Byron MacDonald went approach team-building strategically. Knowing they lack a star a la Caeleb Dressel or Sarah Sjostrom, they prioritized depth and chemistry and hope relays can be an equalizing force. Hayden and Masse, both leaders for the national team, are assuming that same mantle for their club.

Blake Pieroni (photo: Mike Lewis)

Blake Pieroni at Toronto Titans practice; Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS

“We really built the team to have a good team culture,” Rob Kent said. “When we were talking to swimmers and interviewing them for the positions on the team, it wasn’t just based strictly on time, although that was key. When we had a choice, we picked people we thought would have good chemistry and mix well.”

While the Toronto Titans have largely cornered the market on Canadian talent – Sydney Pickrem of the London Roar and Markus Thormeyer of the Tokyo Frog Kings notable exceptions – they’re not an exclusively Canadian concern. One of the first signings, Iceland’s Anton McKee, is someone Rob Kent believes is an under-the-radar get. Sergey Fesikov has been a bridge to a substantial Eastern European contingent. Shane Ryan brings ISL experience from the LA Current and an all-around sprinter’s aptitude, as does Blake Pieroni. Rookie Louise Hansson leads a Swedish group, and finding swimmers like McKee and Julie Meynen of Luxembourg from less heralded (and not already spoken for) national sources has an exploitable market wrinkle.

Though most of the Titans arrived in the bubble Monday and spent the first 12 hours awaiting initial COVID-19 test results, Dylan Kent feels they’re jelling quickly.

“It’s been a really good squad,” Kent said from the Duna Arena. “I suppose I have nothing to compare it to, but really a great group of guys and girls. Everybody’s excited to be here, excited to train, takes it seriously but it’s also fun and eager to bond and things like that. … It’s a great group top to bottom, and it’s great to see them already filling into the roles.”

The Toronto Titans can ease into life in ISL a little. Aqua Centurion, with a diminished Italian core, finished fourth in Match 2. LA Current was third in Match 1. Tokyo is talented but in the same debut boat.

Either way, the Kents are eager to see a project long in the works, one that began in a very different world, get off the ground and into the water.

“Tokyo I think is going to be a tough team,” Dylan Kent said. “A lot of those guys are coming off Japanese short-course nationals, so I think a lot of them are riding a little bit of a longer taper, so especially for the first meet, you never know. Everybody’s kind of an X factor right now because you don’t know the quality of their training for the last six months or so. … We’re going to get out there and see what we can do right off the bat.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.