For Canada’s swimmers, 2021 began with a singular focus on training.
It peaked when that dedication amounted to six medals at the Tokyo Olympics in July.
It’ll end with the short-course world championships in Abu Dhabi beginning on Thursday, a culmination of a second half of 2021 filled with racing.
Team leader John Atkinson said fighting through the pandemic to hold Olympic trials and reach those six podiums in Tokyo will be what he remembers from the year that was.
“What made the team so successful is the athletes’ resilience and their commitment to what they do with their coaches. The culture on the team is really, really good,” he said.
Canada arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Monday with close to a full squad, featuring the likes of three-time Tokyo medallists Maggie Mac Neil and Kylie Masse as well as young phenom Summer McIntosh. Every swimmer on the team also competed at the Olympics.
Missing from action is Canada’s most decorated Olympian Penny Oleksiak, who is dealing with a back injury. Her absence will hurt Canada’s chance of medalling in relay events.
WATCH | Oleksiak wins Canadian-record 7th Olympic medal:
Still, it remains a strong group of swimmers expected to reach the podium in the 25-metre pool, which tends to favour more powerful athletes equipped with stronger dives and turns. The Olympic pool is 50 metres in length.
“Nothing fazes this group of athletes. They just get on with what they need to get on with, no drama. And we’re really thrilled about the way they do things,” Atkinson said.
Masse, 25, called the pandemic a blessing in disguise in terms of establishing team camaraderie.
“I felt like everyone is just so much more connected now because we had each other to lean on when times were tough and to be there at the worst and the best moments throughout all of the craziness again,” she said.
WATCH | Masse earns 2nd individual silver in Tokyo:
Canada’s Kayla Sanchez, who won a pair of relay medals in Tokyo, said the training period before the Tokyo Olympics was crucial toward establishing the team dynamic that paved the way for so many podium appearances.
To break up the redundancy of training, Canadian coaches held weekly time trials to provide a taste of racing.
“Everyone knows that they just want to do their best for the team. And there’s obviously that competitiveness there. Like you’re talking about Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse, Sydney Pickrem, Maggie Mac Neil all in one group, they’re going to race their butts off just to beat each other in training,” Sanchez said.
“Once we got to the Olympic Games, where we’re all on the same team and we’ve all got each other’s backs, I’d be scared for other countries.”
WATCH | Mac Neil swims to Canada’s 1st gold of Tokyo 2020:
In Tokyo, all six of Canada’s swimming medals were won by women. That was also the case at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“Seeing how our girls competed in Tokyo and brought home so many medals was absolutely phenomenal and how the guys stepped up big and placed higher than we ever had in history … It was really, really cool and quite inspiring,” said Yuri Kisil, who swam three events in Tokyo and will also compete in Abu Dhabi.
Atkinson was sure to note the men’s fourth-place finish in the 4x100m freestyle relay, a group that featured 37-year-old Brent Hayden and 19-year-old Josh Liendo. The former won’t compete at the upcoming world championships, while the latter will.
“Going into the Games, if anybody said you’re going to finish fourth, [we] probably said we would have that, but as soon as you finish fourth, you want to be a bronze medallist. And they felt that but we were so proud of what they did,” Atkinson said.
Masse, Sanchez and Kisil were among a number of Canadians who competed in the International Swimming League, which began just after the Olympics in August and wrapped at the beginning of December.
Given the busy schedule of 50m ISL racing, Masse, of Lasalle, Ont., said she initially didn’t expect to compete at the short-course worlds.
“But I’m really glad I’m here now and I’m excited to race and I think ISL fuelled me a bit more to know that I can still have so many areas to improve on. I know I can still be faster,” Masse said.
For Sanchez, the ISL was a way to “rip the Band-Aid off” following the comedown of competing at the Olympics and return to competition in the fun environment provided by the professional league, which is now three years old.
The 20-year-old enjoyed the busy racing schedule after training dominated the first half of the year.
“Being provided the racing opportunities to rehearse and perfect all the little details of a race that you can’t really get in training unless you’re standing up and doing those max efforts, it’s a good opportunity to see what you can do,” the Scarborough, Ont., native said.
Canada’s team in Abu Dhabi features nine women and three men in the pool, in addition to four open-water swimmers entered at the meet.