Steady Diet of Racing at Florida Putting Joshua Liendo in Position for 2024

Photo Courtesy: Florida Athletics

Steady Diet of Racing at Florida Putting Joshua Liendo in Position for 2024

The messaging from Swimming Canada through 2020 and into 2021 highlighted a dearth of racing, even by COVID-19 pandemic standards. One of the last major nations to hold its trials for the Tokyo Olympics and one of the most heavily impacted by pandemic restrictions, the program persevered at the Summer Games despite being short on competitions in the lead-up.

Those conditions factored into the decision by Joshua Liendo, who identifies first and foremost as a racer, to head south for college swimming at the University of Florida. He’s thrilled by how his first year in Florida has worked out.

Joshua Liendo-Olympic Swimming Trials-f-19june2021Photo Scott Grant

Joshua Liendo; Photo Courtesy: Scott Grant/Swimming Canada

“I’m getting world-class racing down here, regularly, which is great,” Liendo said by phone last week as he preps for NCAA Championships. “I feel like it’s just going to be that much better because by the time I get to Worlds, it’s going to be that I’ve been doing it so much and so often that it’s only going to make me better.”

Liendo has flourished in Florida, accelerating a trajectory well underway before he left Canada. At the SEC Championships, he won the 100 butterfly in 44.11 seconds. He was second to Tennessee’s Jordan Crooks in both the 50 freestyle (Liendo went 18.39) and the 100 (41.24). All three are NCAA A cuts.

Liendo split 18.20 off the end of the Gators’ silver-winning 200 medley relay and 18.02 as the Gators won gold in the 200 free relay. He helped Florida win the 400 medley relay, swimming fly, in an SEC record and was part of the runner-up 400 free relay. The Gators have a chance to topple NCAA records in both the 200 free relay (they were .11 off the 2009 standard of Auburn) and the 400 medley relay (.26 away from Texas’s 2017 mark).

He’s being driven forward by friend and foe alike. He and Crooks tangled in each individual event in SECs in College Station, Texas. The competition seems to have brought out the best in both, and the Caymanian is a likely rival on the international stage for years to come.

“Racing him, I’ve learned a lot, and then there’s that competitive aspect about it where every race is close,” Liendo said. “I’m always on my toes, and Jordan is a great guy. He’s really humble, he’s a nice dude and a talented athlete, and it’s always a pleasure to race against him. I’d race against him all the time if I could, because I feel like I get better from racing him.”

Fun in the Florida Sun

The team atmosphere in Gainesville about speaks for itself. He’s surrounded by outstanding sprinters – Florida went second, fourth, seventh and eighth in the 100 free at SECs, for instance. He shares a team with Olympians Alberto Mestre and Alfonso Mestre, not to mention Gator Swim Club’s rolodex of post-grad standouts. A group that counts Anthony Nesty as the head coach and Katie Ledecky as a graduate assistant has no shortage of motivation and knowhow on deck.

“We have a large group of guys that can all go fast at any given time and at practices,” he said. “There’s always someone to push me in practice, which I find really good. The group dynamic, we always have fun in practice, it’s a really good time to be with them in practice and obviously at meets. I’m having a lot of fun and I’m enjoying it a lot.”

College life is an adjustment, but Liendo has managed fairly well. At 20, he’s on the older side for a freshman, but he’s grateful for the help he’s gotten from Florida in his transition.

A thornier change is to short-course yards, even if the results don’t necessarily prove it. It’s a different discipline from the short-course meters he trained at the High Performance Centre in Ontario. The vagaries are pronounced for a sprinter, with execution of turns and starts so precise and the margins vanishingly small.

Liendo credits Crooks with being better in those areas than he is, which is one dimension in which he’s using the Tennessee sophomore as a measuring stick.

“It was definitely a big adjustment,” Liendo said. “Even at SECs, I’m still missing my turns, stuff like that. It’s almost a different sport, the way you have to think about it – very detail-oriented, not as much swimming even, lot of underwaters and stuff like that.”

Looking (Way) Ahead

The Gators have had a stranglehold on the SEC, winning 11 straight men’s titles. But their sights are set higher this year, to be players on the national scene.

It’s been trending in that direction under Nesty, and attracting talent like Liendo is a big reason why. Florida hasn’t won an NCAA title on the men’s side since 1984. Its last top-two finish was in 1985. The Gators were third each of the last two seasons and five times in the last decade. But they’ve dropped as low as eighth (in 2012) and were fifth in 2018, the last time the meet was held at the University of Minnesota, this year’s home.

This year seems more open. With the emergence of Arizona State, the duopoly of California and Texas, which have claimed sole possession of the top two spots each year since 2014, seems in jeopardy. It could create an opening for Florida to do something special, and the Gators know it.

As contenders in all five relays and depth that should pack A finals across the board, hope is palpable.

“We started talking about it at SECs,” Liendo said. “We’re close to these records already, so with the team that we have and as well as we’ve done, the whole group has improved and they’ve gotten a lot better, even when you look at them from last year. We were talking about NCAAs and seeing what it takes to be at the top and who we have to beat and the things we have to do in order to win. That’s where our head is at right now, and we’re in a good spot right now to do something special at NCAAs.”

Liendo seems to be in an interesting spot in the quadrennial Olympic cycle, shortened to a three-year wait after Tokyo’s postponement. Liendo is a figurehead for the Canadian men’s program, with Olympic experience and international pedigree that he’s only burnished since Tokyo. He gleaned bronze medals in the 50 free and 100 free at the World Short-Course Championships in 2021. He added bronze in the 100 free and 100 fly at Worlds in Budapest, then capped a busy summer of making up for lost racing time with gold in the 100 fly and bronze in the 50 free at the Commonwealth Games.

The pressure of a looming Olympics is always there, Liendo said, if less prevalent before the countdown clock ticks under 12 months to Opening Ceremonies. But Liendo would be lying if he said that one eye isn’t always on Paris.

Luckily, his short-term aspirations in Gainesville and his long-term international hopes are aligned.

“I kind of know the next steps I need to take to continue getting better, so I feel like this year, with the World Championships and coming down here and getting a lot of racing in NCAAs, I’m using it as a prep for this Olympic year,” he said. “I try to always be good in all the races I do and to keep improving, so I’m looking at this year to learn from it and I’m going to take what I learned from this year to take into the Olympic year next year.”

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