The 2016 Olympics was a coming-out party of sorts for the Canadian women’s team. After zero medals at the 2012 Games in London, they exploded for six in Rio, led by 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak. Oleksiak became an instant star, with four medals including a gold in the 100m freestyle.
The women showed they have stars who can get to the podium individually – Oleksiak, Kylie Masse and Hilary Caldwell – and that all three of their relays can compete with the best in the world. A pair of bronze medals in the freestyle relays and a close 5th in the medley relay was a huge change from missing the final in two of three four years prior.
With all of this success on the women’s side, what was to make of the men’s team?
The Canadian men won all three of the swimming medals won in 2012 (two pool, one open water), but it was clear that success wasn’t going to be sustainable. Brent Hayden was on the last legs of his international career at that point, and walked away from the sport after the meet. Ryan Cochrane, who won the country’s sole medal in 2008, once again came through but he too likely only had one more quad left (he did end up officially retiring in March of this year).
Their path from 2012 to 2016 wasn’t a pretty one, though there have been some major improvements over the last two years. A big factor in that was Santo Condorelli, who gained his Canadian citizenship in 2015 and had back-to-back 4th place finishes in the 100 free at the World Championships and Olympics. That seems as though it might have just been a short-term fix, as Condorelli was absent at their recent trials and whether or not he ever competes for Canada again is up in the air.
Though there were recent positives besides Condorelli, it is clear the women’s team is on a completely different level than the men right now and the Swimming Canada brass have put together a strategy with the objective of brining the Canadian men to international relevance.
“Our men’s team is in a definite rebuilding phase,” said John Atkinson, the High Performance Director of Swimming Canada. “The current performance of the men’s team has taken a number of quads to be at the point we are at now.”
Atkinson noted the 2008 Olympic Trials, where a sub-50 swim in the 100 freestyle was required to make the final. By the time 2013 rolled around, a time of 50.36 was good enough to win the event at Canadian Trials.
“What was underneath did not have much depth,” said Atkinson. “We had older males retire. Things in men’s swimming take longer to rebuild.”
There are some up and comers who “are on the cusp of breaking through internationally,” said Atkinson. He’s referring to Yuri Kisil and Markus Thormeyer – both of whom train at the High Performance Centre in Vancouver – and Javier Acevedo of the Ajax Aquatic Club. Kisil and Acevedo had 10th and 17th place finishes in Rio respectively, and Thormeyer was a key member of the 400 free relay that placed 7th.
“We have younger athletes that we just have to work with their coaches now.”
In this development process Atkinson will work with the recently hired Martyn Wilby, the senior coach of the Olympic program, Mark Perry – new open water/distance coach, Ken McKinnon – national development coach, and Iain McDonald – senior manager of the NEXTGEN high performance pathway.
“We have four key technical people working in the Olympic program so we can have more interaction with coaches and carded athletes,” said Atkinson.“It’s all about educating the coaches to be able to work with the athletes in their home program. It’s about understanding the things we brought into Swimming Canada over the last year”.
Wilby, who spent 19 years at the University of Florida, will be travelling to clubs and high performance centers across the country to work with athletes and coaches.
“It’s educating the athletes and the coaches exactly what high performance is,” said Wilby, “we have to find those people and educate them and help their coaches in knowing what it’s going to take to be a world-class athlete, a world championship finalist, an Olympic finalist. As opposed to just being – and I say ‘just’ in the nicest possible way – a Canadian finalist.”
One of Perry’s main roles will be helping young swimmers develop the skills to swim the mid-distance and distance events.
“It’s all to do with building an engine for young swimmers,” Perry said. “As they get older you realize they may be naturally more of a sprint animal or naturally a middle-distance swimmer, or naturally a distance swimmer. One of the issues is we need to build that engine with all our swimmers.”
Atkinson is obviously looking towards Tokyo 2020, but realizes identifying and growing young talent now is essential for future success in 2024 and beyond. Atkinson praised McKinnon for a “a phenomenal job with the development of athletes and coaches over a number of years.”
Over the next few months they plan to hold male development camps for up and coming swimmers and their coaches. “We’ll be engaging with the coaches about what they need to do to bring through their male swimmers,” said Atkinson.
He understands developing athletes is always a process, and that you can’t rush anyone through the system. “It’s a consistent approach and having a strategy, but starting the strategy now,” he said. “It’s a very individual approach. It’s recognizing (someone) having the skills and physical attributes to be successful. Then working with them and their coach to have an individual plan in place for them.”
Perry also noted the women’s team will not be forgotten: “You can’t improve the men at the expense of the women”. Wilby also mentioned: “Identifying these people doesn’t start and end after each Olympics, it’s got to be continual so we have sustainability.”