Joshua Liendo: Canadian Youngster Ready to Take the Next Big Step

Joshua Liendo-Olympic Swimming Trials-f-22june2021Photo Scott Grant

Joshua Liendo: Canadian Youngster Ready to Take the Next Big Step

Only 18 at the time, sprinter Joshua Liendo treated last summer in Tokyo as an opportunity to gain experience in his first Olympics. He competed in three individual events and swam on two relays, including the 400 free relay that broke the Canadian record while finishing fourth. With added confidence, the podium in Paris in 2024 now becomes the more realistic aim.

Joshua Liendo’s primary job at the Tokyo Olympics was to watch and learn. There was little chance that the Canadian sprinter could stop himself from doing the latter.

Liendo wouldn’t turn 19 until later in August. Career-defining as the Olympic berth was, it came with a sense of the future. Tokyo offered a chance to compete, something in drastically short supply since the pandemic began, and to find their feet on the sport’s grandest stage.

Given Liendo’s signature approach, a blend of curiosity and composure, he needed no reminder about what could be gained in Tokyo.

“Just watching the best in the world, what they do, what mistakes they don’t make and what mistakes I make,” Liendo said in December before the FINA Short Course World Championships in Abu Dhabi. “And that’s something I really touched on in my training when I got back. I’m just a smarter athlete now, and the Olympics helped me out a lot with that and where I can get better.”

As Liendo showed in the UAE, his potential is limitless. His assault on Canada’s record boards has been steady through the years. But what has Liendo primed for the next step—from a swimmer with Olympic A cuts to a genuine medal contender—is the same mentality that has taken him this far in his career.

“You know, Josh isn’t done yet,” Eddie Toro, Liendo’s longtime coach at North York Aquatic Club, told Swimming World. “He’s having way too much fun with this. If there is any pressure on him, we can’t tell. He handles it so well. He just learned to make this a very fun experience for him, and I say that very genuinely. I think that helps him so much because the more elite he gets, he’s just more relaxed than the rest of the guys.”

From Canada to Trinidad and Back

Liendo’s swimming journey began in a childhood split between countries. He was born in Scarborough, Ontario, in 2002, but spent much of his youth in Trinidad & Tobago. The island nation is where he learned to swim (and developed an academic interest in marine biology), but he dabbled in a variety of sports there, from football to gymnastics to baseball, his parents split on hoping he’d gravitate toward the latter two. Upon returning to Canada at age 9, the family settled in Markham, and Liendo started club swimming, first at Toronto Olympian Swim Team (TORCH), then NYAC.

Watching Michael Phelps inspired Liendo to become a butterflyer. When Liendo sprouted a 6-foot-4 frame, it would prove a prescient choice. Liendo has described butterfly choosing him rather than the other way around, and the stroke became the rock around which Toro and the late Murray Drudge at NYAC helped Liendo build.

“He knew that he always had butterfly to fall back on,” Toro says. “It was just this relationship with the stroke that, ‘I got it.’ From an early age, you don’t need to understand it too much—it just comes out. And as he gets older, you point out things you want to keep, things that make butterfly very efficient.”

That latter process, Toro said, hits at the heart of Liendo’s mentality. He describes Liendo as studious, with the humility to understand where he needs to improve, the initiative to seek out those lessons and the diligence to incorporate them into training. Toro saw that firsthand for years, and he’s certain that that trait is tailored for Liendo as he reaches international notoriety.

“Swimming is a passion for him, and he just had this curiosity and this mission to get better, not just in a physical way, but in details,” Toro says. “You could see through his eyes that when you’re talking to him, the wheels are turning very quickly. He has this ability from a young age that still carries with him.”

On An Upward Trajectory

Toro started working with Liendo at age 12, and he had an inkling that the swimmer’s mental toolkit was special. But he didn’t understand how tremendous the pieces could be when fully assembled until Liendo was 14.

As Liendo recalled in a recent podcast interview, the 2017 Canadian Junior Championships were a rare moment where his coaches thought him a tad too ambitious. His best time in the 100 fly had been a 56.49, but Liendo felt sure he had a sub-55 swim in him.

All Liendo did was trim nearly two seconds off his best time, setting a Canadian 13-14 age group record at 54.76 seconds.

“That swim,” Toro says, “when I watched it, I said, this guy is going to make it very far.”

The NAG record came just a year after Liendo had set his first Ontario age-group mark, and the rocket ride kept going. His watershed year was 2019: Liendo set age-group marks for 15-17 in the 100 fly and 100 free. Both times—49.17 in the 100 free and 52.13 in the 100 fly—are quicker than the American 15-16 marks, placing him ahead of Caeleb Dressel (49.28 100 free, 2013) and Luca Urlando (52.40), who had downed Phelps’ 100 fly record in 2018. (Liendo was 16 for the fly swim and five days past his 17th birthday for the 100 free.)

Liendo got his first taste of senior competition at the 2019 World Championships, then won a silver medal in the 100 free and two relay medals at World Juniors later that summer. He was named Canada’s male junior swimmer of the year, at the forefront of a wave of young talent the program hoped would complement its ascendant women’s program.

Olympic Debut

Liendo didn’t let the Olympic postponement dent his momentum. He set the Canadian record in the 100 fly at Olympic Trials at 51.40 seconds. While Tokyo didn’t hold a medal, Liendo advanced to the semifinals of the 100 fly and 100 free and swam two relay finals, the men’s 400 free squad with a shocking fourth-place result.

In Abu Dhabi, Liendo added three national SCM marks. He won bronze in the 50 and 100 free and helped the Canadian mixed 200 free relay to gold.

“I’m going in with more confidence. I’m really excited to race,” Liendo said before Worlds. “There’s obviously some fast guys here, some of the best in the world. In my training, it’s been thinking about what I need to do to be up there with the best in the world, so I’ll be able to measure myself, test out where I am against the best in the world.”

In so many areas, Toro says, Liendo already is among the best. His times are merely catching up. Liendo’s mental approach melds the wisdom of a veteran with the joy of an age grouper. Toro lauds the latter as keeping him fresh, willing to learn and grow. Liendo achieves that by keeping things in perspective, trying to leave his performances at the pool, with neither success nor failures staying with him long.

That savvy fuels Toro’s optimism that Liendo is equipped to take the next big step.

“That’s a very unique feature in Josh that I haven’t seen in a swimmer since, honestly,” Toro says. “Swimmers tend to get to that point later on when they’re in their 20s, and now they’re really taking their career to the next level, but Josh had that from an early age. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”