In the history of Canadian women’s Swimming, there have been few Olympic highlights. They have just one gold medalist all-time, Anne Ottenbrite from the 1984 Soviet Boycotted edition. To be fair, Marianne Limpert was robbed in 1996, where she finished second in the 200 IM to Ireland’s Michelle Smith. Smith was later issued a four year doping ban and was widely believed to have doped her way to massive improvements that year.
Since then, Canada has always been a country brimming with potential that could never break through. Canadian men have always managed to have one or two stars to carry them forward over the last thirty years. Alex Baumann and Victor Davis were world class in the 1980s in IM and breaststroke respectively. They gave way to 1992 Olympic backstroke champion Mark Tewksbury. Then came back to back Olympic medalist Curtis Myden (IM). A brief bleak period in 2004, and then the current era of Ryan Cochrane.
For the women, there have been fits and starts, swimmers who make a big splash domestically but cannot finish the job at the biggest competitions. Joanne Malar won both IMs at the 1999 Pan Pacific Championship, but finished just 5th in the 200 IM in Sydney. Brittany Reimer was not quite world class when she debuted in 2004 (she was just 16 years old at the time), and by 2008 her career was all but over. Annamay Pierse came on like a rocket ship in 2009, breaking the world record in the 200 breaststroke. She too ended up being just a flash in the pan.
In 2016, Canada has perhaps more hope than ever of notching a women’s medal in Rio. Here, in order of likelihood, are the three swimmers that can make Canada’s sad history just that:
1. Brittany MacLean, 400/800 Free:
MacLean has a puncher’s chance in either of the women’s distance races, and is peaking at the right time. She also has Olympic experience, and more importantly the right kind of Olympic experience. She was not a spectator in London, she swam well and made her way in the 400 freestyle final. She’s had some decent international results since then, including winning two medals at the 2014 Pan-Pacs.
If MacLean can match her improvement from the 2012 Trials to the Olympics, she should be in line for around a 4:02 or below 8:20 in the 800, both of which have a good chance of medalling in those races.
2. Penny Oleksiak, 100 Butterfly
Oleksiak is coming on like a freight train, having improved her 100 butterfly by nearly a second and a half in the last few months. One of the things to look out for in Olympic years are teenage swimmers like this, as their improvement curves are less predictable. It’s possible that Oleksiak could be a lot faster come Rio. That is significant because right now there are few swimmers differentiating themselves from the pack behind Sarah Sjostrom.
If Oleksiak can continue to improve to a 56 low (not out of the question, considering she was swimming 1:01s just one year ago), she should win a medal. She has experience working against her, yes, but perhaps it could be to her advantage for the moment as she rides the high momentum of rapidly improving.
3. Noemie Thomas, 100 Butterfly
Thomas’ candidacy has a lot of the same arguments as Oleksiak, with a few key distinctions. Thomas is older (1996 birth year versus 2000 for Oleksiak). Still, Thomas is relatively young and having a nice year after plateauing for several years. Thomas has been through a lot- going from the high of winning gold at the Junior Pan-Pac level and then not improving for a couple years.
Now Thomas has found her footing, and seems to be a good fit with Teri McKeever, one of the best coaches in the world. Like Oleksiak, if she can separate herself from the pack behind Sjostrom there is an opportunity for her.
Ultimately, it whether or not one of these swimmers breaks through will be a huge part of how Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson is evaluated. Canadian women’s swimming has been underperforming at the Olympic level, and if Atkinson can turn that around, it will reflect well on his leadership during this cycle.