Kylie Masse Retains World Title in 100 Back While Continuing Canadian Momentum (RACE VIDEO)

kylie-masse-100-back-final-2019-world-championships

World Swimming Championships (Kylie Masse)

Gwangju, Day 3 finals

Women’s 100 backstroke

The surge of Canadian prominence continued on Tuesday night as Kylie Masse retained her title in the 100 backstroke at the World Championships, rallying from fourth at the midway point to grab the gold medal in 58.60. Masse’s medal raised Canada’s hardware count to four, and complemented the surprise victory of teammate Maggie MacNeil in the 100 butterfly from Monday night.

Masse had some room to make up down the second lap but stayed smooth with her stroke and gradually pulled into the lead and held off Australia’s Minna Atherton (58.85) and the United States’ Olivia Smoliga (58.91). Canada’s Taylor Ruck just missed the podium, finishing fourth in 58.96.

Upon her arrival at the World Championships, Masse was pegged as the favorite to win one of the meet’s deeper events. Although she lost her world record to American Kathleen Baker last year, Masse has been consistent throughout the season, routinely throwing down top times, including a world-leading 58.16. Her favorite status, too, was aided by the fact that Baker, coming off a career campaign in 2018, has been troubled over the past few months. Not only has Baker dealt with a couple of bouts of illness, a battle with pneumonia led to Baker breaking a rib during a coughing spell.

Baker never materialized as a major threat to Masse in Gwangju, but that didn’t mean the path to a repeat was easy. Instead, she had to deal with a fast-rising Atherton, her countrywoman, Ruck, and Smoliga, who saved her best swim of the event for when it counted most. Ultimately, Masse came through. The Canadian, who owns six of the 10-fastest times in history, may not have been at her swiftest, but all that mattered was touching first.

Out in 28.56, Masse made the turn tied for fourth with Smoliga, but only .14 behind Ruck and Baker, who shared the lead. But coming off the wall, Masse made a move that pulled ahead of the field, a position she maintained while under pressure from Atherton. Masse covered the last lap in 30.04, the fastest in the field and .19 quicker than Atherton. Masse is the first woman to repeat as world champion in the 100 backstroke since the first two editions of the competition, which were won in 1973 and 1975 by Ulrike Richter, who was part of the East German systematic-doping program.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” Masse said. “That was definitely one of my goals coming in here. I’m really happy with that. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I knew it was going to be a tough race. It’s such a strong and deep field so I just tried to stay in my own lane and stick to my own race strategy. Coming off that turn, I gave myself momentum and speed to finish that last 25 the way I wanted.”

By defending her world championship, Masse won her fourth straight gold medal at a major international competition. Not only did Masse win the world title in 2017, she walked away from 2018 with gold medals in the 100 backstroke from the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships. The consistency that Masse has shown will undoubtedly make her the favorite for gold heading into the Olympic year.

The first three days of competition have been nothing short of exceptional for Canada, which has watched its women’s program consistently progress over the past few years. As recently as the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the Canadian women were shut out of the medals. A year later, at the World Championships in Barcelona, a bronze medal from Hilary Caldwell in the 200 backstroke was all Canada could muster, with the World Champs of 2015 also producing just one medal.

Fortunes began to change, however, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where Masse and Penny Oleksiak stepped forward to lead a new generation of Canadian women. Since that roll started in South America, it hasn’t stopped, and Canada has established itself as a consistent player on the global stage. At those Rio Games, Oleksiak won a share of gold in the 100 freestyle and silver in the 100 butterfly while Masse and Caldwell were bronze medalists in backstroke events. Add in two relay medals and it was the start of a new era for a country that had struggled mightily on the world scene for years.

At the 2017 World Championships, there was a slip to two medals, only for a positive wave to build again in 2018 with strong showings at the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Champs.

In Gwangju, Canadian success has continued to be the norm. Aside from the victories secured by Masse and MacNeil, Sydney Pickrem earned a bronze medal in the 200 individual medley and the 4×100 freestyle relay of Kayla Sanchez, Ruck, Oleksiak and MacNeil won bronze. Obviously, Canada is well-positioned on the road to Tokyo. Swimming Canada High Performance Director and National Coach John Atkinson was impressed with the way Masse handled herself.

“When you come into any major championships and Games as defending champion, there’s a whole different level of expectation on the athlete that wasn’t there beforehand,” Atkinson said. “I think that Kylie handled herself tremendously. To come back, get a gold medal, get her hand on the wall first, her experience came through over that second 50, and she is a true champion.”

En route to the silver medal, Atherton diffused any concerns over Australia’s future in the 100 backstroke. With veteran Emily Seebohm missing out on qualification for Worlds, questions arose as to whether Australia would remain a factor in the event. Atherton put those concerns to rest, along with Kaylee McKeown, who was fifth in 59.10.

“I’m really happy with that,” Atherton said of her podium finish. “I did a really great time, my second time under 59. I’m really happy to come away with this award. I train with (Seebohm) who is one of the best in the world. Racing her every day was a really great opportunity for me.”

For Smoliga, her bronze medal was a defining performance. Although Smoliga won eight gold medals at last year’s World Short Course Championships, including a double in the 50 backstroke and 100 backstroke, her first individual medal at the World Champs in long course was significant. The success followed strong preparation for the University of Georgia product and sets her own the road to the Olympic Trials with a jolt of confidence.

“I think the crowd helped me today,” Smoliga said. “I could hear them cheering the last 20 meters, so I used that to the best of my advantage…I think I have better seasons to come.”

 

Results

1. Kyle Masse, Canada 58.60
2. Minna Atherton, Australia 58.85
3. Olivia Smoliga, United States 58.91
4. Taylor Ruck, Canada 58.96
5. Kaylee McKeown, Australia 59.10
6. Kathleen Baker, United States 59.56
6. Natsumi Sakai, Japan 59.56
8. Daria Vaskina, Russia 59.74