For Canadian Kayla Sanchez, Shoulder Rehab Means Taking It One Day at a Time

Kayla Sanchez; Photo Courtesy: Kevin Light/Swimming Canada

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For the three months that she spent out of the pool during COVID-19 lockdowns, Kayla Sanchez learned how to take things one day at a time. From the changes in her dryland routine, as different equipment and programs came available, to seeing meets like Canadian Olympic Trials and the Tokyo Olympics postponed, Sanchez picked up a new resilience in the face of adversity.

She’s drawing on that toughness, especially on the mental side of things, now that she’s rehabbing from a long-standing shoulder injury.

“It’s easy to kind of look at the calendar and start to map out everything ahead of you,” the Canadian sprinter told Swimming World this week. “But personally, I have to kind of not look ahead. I want to keep my focus on what’s right ahead of me. Just like what we’ve seen with COVID, anything can be taken away at any point. If I can focus on what I’m doing now and make sure I’m in my best possible position, then I’m happy with that.”


Kayla Sanchez; Photo Courtesy: Vaughn Ridley/Swimming Canada

The right shoulder injury that has taken her out of the International Swimming League season has been a long time coming. She’s trained through pain, via workouts accounting for the weakness in her shoulder, for a while. When pain flared this summer, imaging revealed tears in her labrum and rotator cuff. A surgery she had hoped to put off until after the Tokyo Games happened in late September, and Sanchez is in the middle of an aggressive rehab to regain strength and return to the water.

Just when swimmers are getting back to work after the lengthy, COVID-19-forced layoff, it may seem an inopportune time to be out of action. But the 19-year-old is still processing the benefits from an unplanned summer hiatus and has time to incorporate them into her rehab. Her mindset is stronger for having weathered an unprecedented summer, and she feels like she’s in “the right place” mentally to handle a rehab that, less than a year out from the start of the Olympics, could be scary timing.

“It was different to have the season end short and to take a step back,” Sanchez said. “It was nice to kind of reset the mindset, take the time for myself, focus on whatever training I could do and just be in the best possible shape for returning to the pool.”

Sanchez is a big piece in a resurgent Canadian women’s program poised to be a big factor in the Tokyo medals conversation. The native of Scarborough, Ontario, was part of two bronze-winning freestyle relays at the 2019 World Championships and two silver-medal relays at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. She’s one of the younger members of a cresting wave of Canadian talent, a valuable relay cog (including, with the un-retirement of Brent Hayden, in mixed relays) and a potential individual qualifier in several events.

Sanchez was also a key figure in a historic inflection point in the Canadian program, the 2017 World Junior Championships. She was part of three gold-medal relays in Indianapolis (including prelims of the medley relay) and helped the 400 and 800 freestyle relays set world junior records. Individually, she claimed silver in the 200 individual medley and bronze in the 100 free.

That meet was a coming-out party for swimmers like Taylor Ruck, Rebecca Smith and Jade Hannah, with Penny Oleskiak already an established star for her efforts in Rio the previous summer. When talk of the meet was broached, Sanchez laughed in recalling her fondness for that squad.

“2017 World Juniors was, definitely for me, one of my favorite memories,” she said. “I had so much fun racing with the girls that I trained with. It was just really cool to be able to step up, us four, and just show everyone what we could do. I’ll always be proud of them and they’re such hard workers. It was such an amazing meet.”


Kayla Sanchez; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

More than nostalgia, meets like that have consequences for the present. The thought of relay medals hangs in the future for Sanchez. The community established among the burgeoning crop of Canadians was instrumental during the pandemic shutdowns, with swimmers like Kylie Masse stepping to the fore to keep athletes supported and together, even if they couldn’t physically be in the same place.

It comes with a balance for Sanchez as she heals. She has to deal with disappointment; missing out on the inaugural season for the Toronto Titans in the ISL, for which she was one of the earliest and highest-profile signings, is one such obstacle.

“I had so much fun at ISL last year,” the former member of Energy Standard said. “I loved it. And when they announced the new Toronto team, I was excited, I almost couldn’t believe it. So I’m sad I’m not going and there’s definitely FOMO, but I’m super excited to watch and see the team move through the regular season and just see how it works, because it’ll be different from last year with the bubble format and everything.”

But her one-day-at-a-time mentality means she can’t get ahead of herself. She’s looking forward to being on the same pool deck as her Canadian mates, competing with and against them, representing the country together, hopefully on swimming’s biggest stage. But as she heals, her gaze is trained squarely on daily physio appointments and strength exercises in the present for that future to materialize.

“We’re so excited and we can’t wait to race, but right now, we have to focus on training, take it day-by-day,” Sanchez said. “Make sure that we’re working hard together, we’re staying happy, we’re staying healthy and we can see what happens in Tokyo.”