SEC Women’s Breaststroke Races Will Have Canadian Flair

Olivia Paskulin. Photo Courtesy: Swimming Canada

This week’s SEC Championships at Auburn University will be a long distance from the Great White North. But when the meet shifts to breaststroke, there will be a definite Canadian flair to proceedings.

It’s an odd phenomenon that has landed so many Canadian breaststrokers in the SEC, but one that creates a familiar dynamic on deck.

“It’s kind of nice to have someone from home, even if you don’t necessarily know them, you know of them,” said Olivia Paskulin, a senior at LSU. “So it’s kind of like a bond that we have. It’s a weird friendship. Some girls I don’t know personally but they’ll come up to me after a race and say, ‘hey good job,’ because we knew each other from age-group nationals in 2016 or something like that, or we raced against each other.”

The SEC has been a recent haven for Canadians, particularly in breaststroke. At the 2019 championships, Georgia’s Sofia Carnevale finished third in the 100 breast with Paskulin eighth. Carnevale also made the B final of the 200 breast, taking 13th.

That event’s A final featured Sydney Pickrem of Texas A&M taking home second place with Tennessee’s Tess Cieplucha in seventh.

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Tess Cieplucha. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Pickrem has graduated, but the Canadian contingent remains strong for this year’s championships. Carnevale is the fourth seed in the 100 breast this year with Paskulin 24th. Both hold NCAA B cuts. In the 200 breast, Cieplucha (seventh seed) and Carnevale (10th) figure to be finals contenders.

A new face in the mix is Missouri freshman Katrina Brathwaite, seeded 15th in the 100 and 13th in the 200 with B cuts. Brathwaite and Paskulin both hail from Quebec and trained at Pointe-Claire Swim Club. Though several years separate them, Paskulin has watched Brathwaite grow as a swimmer.

“She’s a phenomenal swimmer, very versatile, swims literally every single stroke, is great in the IM,” Paskulin said. “She’s so strong in breaststroke, too. It makes me really excited to have someone from my club team that I’ve watched basically grow up – I’ve known her since she was 12 years old – so it’s really wonderful to see her and I’m super excited to see what she’s going to do.”

Those connections inform Paskulin’s theory of how so many Canadians headed south to swim. The lure of the SEC’s many elite programs is obvious. But news of acquaintances’ successes far from home cements the pipeline. Carnevale, for instance, is one of three Etobicoke Swim Club alums at Georgia, joining fellow Ontario natives Meryn McCann and Olivia Anderson there after two seasons at UNLV.

Paskulin cites James Guest, a Pointe-Claire alum who graduated from Georgia in 2019 as one of the Bulldogs’ fastest ever breaststrokers, as one she looked to in deciding where to continue her career.

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Sydney Pickrem. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Something about me checking the results and making a comparison to the other schools and being like, yes this is what I want to do, and it’s led the way for other swimmers that are following along from their club teams,” she said. “Also when we come back to nationals, you always hear through the grapevine how everyone is doing, even if you don’t necessarily know them, so all of the coaches kind of know that the SEC is a really great place to be, which I can attest to that.”

The connection is heightened in an Olympic year, since the Canadians could end up competing against each other three times in six weeks – at SECs, NCAAs, then Canadian Olympic Trials in late March.

Last year’s World Championships trials showed the SEC footprint. The 200 was won by Pickrem. Cieplucha was eighth, Brathwaite was 11th and Carnevale was 15th. (Another American collegian, Florida State’s Nina Kucheran, was sixth as well as fifth in the 100.) In the 100, Carnevale took eighth with Brathwaite 14th.

Paskulin feels it more acutely than most, with Canadian Trials due to be the last meet of her career. Her training is pointed toward SECs, with a decent chance of getting to NCAAs in the 100.

Even before she gets to Toronto at the end of March, she’ll be surrounded by familiar faces.

“I’ll be excited to move on but sad that it’s over,” the marketing major said. “But I’ll be able to spend it with American swimmers, my LSU family, at NCAAs if that’s in the books, with all the fastest of the entire country and then Canadian Trials where all the fastest people in Canada come. It’s such a great opportunity and how it lined up with those three meets back to back.”

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