By Any Measure, A Historically Successful Olympics for Swimming Canada

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Canada celebrates their bronze medal during the medals ceremony for the women's 4x100m medley relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Canada's 400 medley relay team - from left, Kylie Masse, Sydney Pickrem, Maggie MacNeil and Penny Oleksiak, about to receive their bronze medals; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY

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By Any Measure, A Historically Successful Olympics for Swimming Canada

John Atkinson toggles between the long- and short-term perspectives.

Three months ago, Atkinson and Swimming Canada were struggling with how to stage Olympic Trials as a pernicious wave of COVID-19 cases washed over the country. Already out of the water for the longest stretch of any of the leading nations, the path to Tokyo seemed obstructed anew. As much as Atkinson’s job was to not dim optimism, particularly around a women’s program tipped for big things, it was hard at times to prevent doubt seeping in.

But Atkinson weighed those concerns against what he felt when he took over as the high performance director in March 2013. Then, Canada had won just two medals at the most recent Games in 2012. One of the medalists, Brent Hayden, had retired before London’s closing ceremonies. The last Canadian women’s swimming medal was collecting dust, already 17 years old. Atkinson inherited a grand total of eight Canadians in the top eight of their events worldwide.

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Canada celebrates after placing second ahead of Team USA which placed third during the women's 4x100m freestyle relay final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

Canada’s 400 free relay of, from left, Katerine Savard, Maggie MacNeil, Kayla Sanchez and (in the water) Penny Oleksiak after winning silver; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY

Through either lens, from the immediate obstacles of 2020 to the decade-long rebuild of the program, Swimming Canada’s achievements at the Olympics were nothing short of a rousing success.

“You want to see things progress annually and from year to year,” Atkinson said Sunday from the mixed zone at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. “The strategic plan of Swimming Canada when I started was to be a top-six swimming nation. And you can split that up whichever way you want. The way that I’ll split that up today is we’re equal fourth on the medal table with six total medals.”

Such a haul can be taken for granted from the external view, given the preponderance of college stars and World Championships medalists Canada has raised through the years. But winning just three combined medals in 2012 and 2008, on the heels of being shut out in Athens in 2004, six medals – one goal, three silver, two bronze – is a historically massive return. (And Atkinson would add four fourth-place finishes in Canadian record times, which he’s just as pleased about.)

There are so many reasons for Swimming Canada to be pleased with those results. The COVID-19 conditions in the country are one, for sure. But even once the pared-down Trials were conducted in June, surprises still cropped up. Taylor Ruck went from holding Canadian records in the 50 and 200 free to failing to qualify for the Games in either, her freestyle form evidently abandoning here. She didn’t factor into the medals save for two prelims relay swims. Sydney Pickrem, an anticipated medal threat in three individual events, had to pull back due to an illness upon arrival in Japan, swimming instead just one individual event and a gutsy medley relay leg for bronze.

It speaks to the group’s adaptability. As Atkinson puts it, any collection of 26 individuals will face unforeseen adversity on an international trip, pandemic or not. The mystery isn’t if something will go wrong but what that something is. And then the challenge shifts to how you choose to cope with it.

“It’s been crazy,” Pickrem said. “I think emotions have been high, they’ve been low. It’s a long meet. It’s always going to be like that, and you have to make sure you can handle it.

“If you would’ve asked me two weeks ago what did I envision my Olympics, I would’ve said I’d do three individuals. Instead, I did one individual and two relays. And I think I got to embrace a side of swimming that I didn’t necessarily know I was going to get at these Olympic Games. I got to be part of a team more than I could’ve asked for.”

The Canadian adaptability is rooted in its team dynamic. It starts with exemplary leaders at the top, whether it’s Penny Oleksiak leading by her performances in the water (and her perspective out of it), Kylie Masse being the all-around standard-bearer or Pickrem providing constant (and blindingly honest) vocal support. Even younger swimmers like Maggie MacNeil, who grabbed the country’s gold medal via the 100 butterfly, have the seasoning of multiple NCAA and World Championships required to perform to their best on the Olympic stage.

The group has grown closer over the last year because of the pandemic closures all but requiring them to flock to the Toronto High Performance Centre to train, and it paid dividends in Tokyo.

Masse, in particular, is the primary leader in that regard, as coach Ben Titley put in no uncertain terms.

“Kylie Masse is possibly the greatest human being I’ve ever coached,” the veteran coach said. “You’ll see it in her smile, you’ll see it in her eyes, you’ll see it in the way that she acts, probably with you, definitely with her friends, definitely with volunteers and staff like that around. …

“She is probably the nicest athlete I’ve coached in a personal respect. Most athletes have a bit of an edge to them, and they do need that. She has a steeliness about her when it’s a competitive environment. Any time outside of that, she’s a phenomenal young woman and she’s going to be successful in whatever she chooses to do in life.”

Jul 24, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Margaret Macneil (CAN) during the women's 100m butterfly heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

Maggie MacNeil off the block during the heats of the women’s 100 butterfly; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

The team’s excellence is magnified by its place in the greater Canadian effort in Tokyo. Not only were all six swimming medals taken home by women, but the first 11 medals that Canada won in all sports belonged to women. Those athletes have gotten the attention back home to match, and it offers a poignant return on investment in girls and women in sports.

“I think it’s so empowering and inspiring to be surrounded by so many successful and dedicated athletes,” Masse said. “But to have them all be female right now, it’s so empowering and so special, and I think hopefully it’s inspiration to younger kids in sport, and not even just sport but in all aspects of their lives, that they can achieve whatever they want as long as they work hard.”

“I’m just super grateful to have these girls and have the training group that we have, have the staff that we have, have the support in Canada that we have,” Oleksiak said. “ … It takes off a little bit of pressure, lets you focus on your racing and having these girls and knowing that I have the best girls in the world to race with, I pretty much have a medal in the back of my mind the whole race. I’m racing with three of the best swimmers in the world so why should I worry.”

Whichever way you phrase the hypotheticals to Atkinson, his answer is the same. If you told him, on his first day on the job in 2013, that eight years on, Swimming Canada would be a top-five swimming nation on the medal count, he would’ve taken it.

Had you presented him the same bargain in May, he again would’ve signed the deal without hesitation.

“I’m really proud of the team, really proud of the athletes, really proud of the coaches and the team behind the team, the support staff that have done a great job in preparing them to be here and do their best,” Atkinson said.

Not just their best now, but a best that stacks up favorably against anything the program has ever produced.

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1 year ago

Their men’s team is also starting to progress witness their very close fourth to Italy and Australia in the 4×100 freestyle relay, like Australia great things are happening behind the scenes in Canada’s program.
Next year’s Commonwealth Games and World Championships are going to be very exciting meets. Particularly when you throw in the great performance by the UK in Tokyo.