Windsor Essex Swim team head coach Andrei Semenov organized to have a gigantic poster with a picture of Kylie Masse on it signed by his entire swim team and presented to her just a few weeks before the 2016 Olympic Games. The poster didn’t have a picture of Masse as she touched the wall at the Canadian Olympic Trials in April a few short months earlier, qualifying for both the Olympic team and the 2016 Short Course World Championships team in the 100 meter backstroke. It had a picture of her as a 13-year-old girl, with the former mayor of Windsor, Ont. and a teammate, in Athens, Greece.
“She was surprised to see what kind of picture I picked,” said Semenov, Masse’s age-group swim coach for 10-years. According to him, the moment captured in the photograph is when she decided to become a serious swimmer, all the way back at the International Children’s Games in 2009.
Back then the future Olympic bronze medalist in the 100m backstroke was good, but wasn’t even ranked within the top 50 swimmers her age in Canada in any races at the end of the 2008-09 season. Still, Semenov took Masse as part of team Windsor to compete at the ICG, an International Olympic Committee sanctioned event held every year where children between the ages of 12 and 15 compete and represent various cities around the globe. His decision to invite the mayor to join them would change the landscape of swimming in Windsor forever, just as Semenov claims the competition changed Masse’s outlook on swimming forever.
With a population of under 220,000 people, Windsor is just the 23rd largest municipality in Canada. It’s also southernmost city in Canada, located just across the Detroit river from Detroit, Michigan. Being in such an isolated location to the majority of the population of Ontario, which is centered around Toronto, a good four-hour drive away, gives the city a small-town Canadian feel. Hockey’s big there, swimming isn’t. The sports scene is geared around professional sports teams from Detroit and the Windsor Spitfires Ontario Hockey League team.
Windsor didn’t have any Olympic sized pools in the city when Masse was training for the ICG in 2009. The Windsor Essex Swim Team had to train out of small, 25-yard, high school pools which aren’t even regulation size for short course swimming in Canada.
“We trained in horrible, horrible pools. I don’t think any competitive club in Canada had a worse situation with pools,” said Semenov.
At 13-years-old, this was Masse’s introduction into the sport of swimming: sub-par facilities in a city where swimming wasn’t on the forefront of anyone’s mind.
Masse still remembers the daily practice environment, “We swam most of the time 8 or 9 people per lane, sometimes 12 or 13 depending on if it was a busier day or not.”
“She swam in conditions where we swam like sardines in a can,” recalled Semenov. “That’s why she’s so tough. She never enjoyed the luxury of swimming in a new pool and her own lane.”
The conditions weren’t great either. Both Masse and Semenov remember several incidents where facilities were closed because of equipment malfunctions and poor air quality, one time where all three of their pools had to be closed at the same time for maintenance.
Masse recalls one particular practice where the air quality in one of the pools was so bad that they needed to open up the doors during the dead of winter in order to get some air-flow on the pool deck.
“You just couldn’t breathe,” Masse remembered. “A few times the coach would just cancel practice.”
Practicing wasn’t the only challenge facing WEST. They had no facility to hold competitions of their own, and were situated so far from the majority of meets sanctioned by Swim Ontario (the governing body for the sport of swimming in the province of Ontario). That meant that most of the competitions that WEST swimmers would go to were away meets, adding additional travel costs to the overall fee that they needed to pay in order to register with the club at the beginning of the season.
According to Swimming Canada’s database, Masse competed in eight meets besides the ICG during the 2008-09 season. Every single meet was an away meet for the team. Their two closest meets were both in London, Ont., just over a two-hour drive from Windsor. Masse travelled as far as Nepean, Ont. to compete that season, which is over an eight-hour drive from Windsor.
“It was difficult on my family,” said Masse. “I’m grateful that my parents were able to drive. “
WEST was only able to offer one team travel a year, which meant that for seven of those eight meets, Masse’s parents drove her or she carpooled with teammates.
“Kylie was working, working and working with the right attitude and support from her dad and mom,” said Semenov. ““They always supported her to go to the highest level of competition.”
With the less than ideal conditions of the facilities and the constant travel to find competitions for the athletes to participate in, it was clear to Semenov that Windsor needed new and improved training opportunities. But that was somewhat out of his control, and in the hands of the city, and the mayor at the time, Eddie Francis.
After a whirlwind of preparation, Semenov invited Francis to join his team as they travelled to Athens, Greece to represent the city of Windsor at the 2009 ICG. Francis got the opportunity to watch the athletes compete. Semenov’s athletes performed admirably at the meet, with his best athlete taking home a bronze medal.
Semenov remembers Masse trying desperately to take down the bronze medal winner, “That was a main goal for Kylie at least once in her life to beat this girl in any event. That was her ultimate goal. That girl was our fastest swimmer.”
According to Semenov, Francis was impressed by the high-level of competition at the Games, and Semenov gave Francis the idea while there that Windsor should bid to host a future edition of the ICG.
“That trip was eye-opening about how he can bring International Children’s Games to City of Windsor,” said Semenov.
It was then and there that the picture was snapped of Masse, the former mayor of Windsor, and Masse’s teammate who won the bronze medal. Captured in the photo in Semenov’s eyes is the change of the landscape of swimming in Windsor, a decision to bring the Games to the small city across from Detroit, and a swimmer who was now focused on heightened results, ready to become serious in tackling her dream of being a top level contender in the province.
Semenov’s bronze medalist from the Games moved to another club in the GTA to begin the 2009-10 season, making Masse one of the top athletes on the team. She was now dedicated to reaching new heights in swimming according to her former coach, and something big was coming to the city of Windsor.
Semenov’s suggestion to hold the ICG resonated with Francis, and he began to compile the bid for the 2013 ICG, but there was just one problem. At the time, the ICG offered eight sport disciplines: athletics, baseball, basketball, football/soccer, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, and volleyball. Windsor had the amenities to host the would-be 1372 participants, sporting fans, coaches, and supporters, as well as the facilities to host seven of the eight sports. The one sport that Windsor was unable to accommodate at the time of the proposal was swimming.
Masse and Semenov were a big part of the process of creating a successful bid for the games. Both were part of the discussion, and the short, skinny girl, as Semenov describes Masse, met with the ICG committee. She went along to show the committee around Windsor, ate with them, and was a huge part of convincing them to award Windsor the bid for the games.
A successful bid meant one thing: Windsor needed a new pool. In March of 2012 construction began on a parking lot just across from the Detroit River to transform the space into a $78 million facility by the summer of 2013.
The plan for the facility stretched far beyond just a pool, it was going to be an aquatic centre with a gym accessible to members of the public, a lobby, plenty of rooms for offices and meetings, and an immaculately designed indoor waterpark. The pool itself would be state-of-the-art as well; a beautiful 50-meter pool with a adjustable bulkhead in order to divide the pool into two 25-meter pools if needed, and an official diving set up with a diving pool behind the main competition pool.
“I think it’s fantastic and it’s not just something that the swimmers or swimming clubs use, it’s a facility now, they have a water park and gym where the public can use it as well,” said Masse. “I think it’s great and I think it will be great for the city for many years to come.”
With the new pool, and a dedication to bringing higher level sport to Windsor, Francis brought forward the idea to send a bid for the 2016 FINA World Swimming Championships (25m), the biggest international short-course event in swimming. In December of 2012, the city of Windsor was awarded the event, and plans for another pool were put into place. FINA regulation states that a warm-down pool must be at the championships along with the main competition pool. The city of Windsor put forth a plan for a $2-3 million pool at the WFCU Centre – the home of the Windsor Spitfires.
Masse never got to experience what it would be like growing up and competing in the stellar hometown facility created for the ICG. She got the opportunity to race there in the summer before her senior-year in high school at the ICG, but then the pool was closed in order to be fixed up and readied for both public use, and for the use of swimming clubs.
The pool re-opened on December 27, 2013, just in time for WEST and Masse to prepare for the 2014 Speedo Eastern Canadian Championships, a major national meet for top Canadian athletes living in the Eastern part of the country. The meet was held at the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre. This was the first major meet since the 2013 ICG at the facility, and the first time that Masse and WEST would get any chance to prepare for a competition in a facility besides the 25-yard high school pools that they had packed into for years on end.
With just over a month of training in the new facility, Masse won seven individual medals made up of four bronzes, two silvers, and a gold in the 100m backstroke. WEST managed to medal in five relays, all of which featured Masse. Four of those relays finished first; the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay finished second overall.
During the 2013-14 season, Masse got to compete three times in Windsor with eight away meets. It was still a lot of travelling, and took huge dedication from the team members to meet those requirements of travel, but it was changing, and moving forward in the right direction.
Masse only got a short amount of time to relish in the fact that her hometown had such an incredible facility, accepting an offer to study and train at the University of Toronto. Moving to the biggest city in Canada, where she’d been often to visit in order to compete at meets with WEST, she began to train under famed coaches Byron MacDonald and Linda Kiefer.
In her first year with the team, she continued to build on the success that she had at WEST. She was named to the 2015 World University Games team after missing qualifying for the 2015 Pan American Games and World Championships team at the 2015 Canadian Team Trials during her freshman year with the Varsity Blues. In missing the Pan American games team, Masse missed her first opportunity to compete at a senior international competition on home soil.
In early July, Masse competed in the 100m backstroke in Gwangju, South Korea, breaking the one-minute barrier for the first time in order to finish with an astounding time of 59.97 and become the first female Canadian swimmer to win an individual gold medal at the World University Games.
According to Swimming Canada, just days after winning that gold, Masse went to watch the Pan American Games, and began to think about just how great it would be to compete internationally for her home country.
Masse followed up her breakthrough 2014-15 season with spectacular performances in Canadian Interuniversity Sport competition. She broke the national record in the short course 50 and 100m backstrokes at the 2016 Ontario University Athletics Championships, less than two months before the 2016 Canadian Olympic Trials in April. Going into the meet, she wasn’t a favourite to make the team, but anybody who had been watching her compete at the OUA and CIS Championships knew that she had something special in her.
In the heats of the 100m backstroke, Masse smashed the Canadian record by close to half-a-second with a 59.17 performance, setting her up to go into finals as the top seed. With a 59.06, she once again broke the national record and secured her position on both the 2016 Olympic Games and 2016 Short Course World Championships team. She was going to the Olympics, the highest pinnacle of sport, and a few short months later would get the opportunity to race in front of a home crowd in her small hometown of Windsor.
At the Olympic Games in Rio, Masse took another chunk of time off and broke the Canadian record again, this time with a 58.76 in order to finish third in the world and take home a bronze medal for Canada.
Masse hasn’t had the opportunity to visit home much since the Games. She’s a full-time student at the University of Toronto, and after a short break from training, returned to the pool with MacDonald and Kiefer to train full-time for the World Championships.
After her performances in Rio, the current mayor of Windsor, Drew Dilkens, named Masse the ambassador for the World Championships. Dilkens said, “Kylie represents the best of the sport internationally. From a local perspective, she is a very real example of the strength and caliber of the training programs in Windsor,”
In order to do some promotional work with FINA, the international governing body for swimming, Masse got the chance to go take a small break from school and training and go home to Windsor.
Semenov arranged for a huge banner to be hung up at the 50-meter pool, highlighting Masse’s accomplishments from Rio. He invited all WEST swimmers to meet and celebrate Masse, giving young athletes in the club the opportunity to meet an Olympic medalist.
“It was kind of crazy because everyone was just there at once,” said Masse. “But it was really cool to be that person for them and to hopefully inspire them to keep swimming and reach their goals.”
“She signed whatever they gave for her to sign, she talked to them, that was really nice,” said Semenov.
The highlight for many of the young swimmers was the opportunity not just to meet Masse, but to hold an Olympic medal.
“A lot of them are just kind of in awe and then they hold it and it’s way heavier than what they’re expecting,” said Masse. “They’re always like, ‘oh my god it’s so heavy!’ but it’s so cool for me to see them because you have to pass on that inspiration to them and I think that really helps by showing the medal and I think it’s something that they can feel.”
A lot of the young athletes that got the opportunity to meet Masse have signed up to help at the world championships. Many of them will be basket carriers, carrying the athlete’s clothing for them while they race. These kids will also get the first chance to swim in the new 25m warm-down pool attached to the WFCU centre, without the knowledge of what it was like to train in Windsor prior to the completion of all these new pools.
In early November Masse spoke at the University of Toronto alumni banquet about her days training with WEST, and the horrible facilities they were forced to use. With a 50-meter pool, weight room, athletic trainers, therapy, and a 25-yard pool all available to the athletes in the UofT facility, it shed light on Masse’s background as a swimmer. Masse’s U of T teammate Rachel Rhode, another former WEST swimmer, nodded along to all the stories of the terrible conditions in which Masse trained growing up, “Rachel Rhode was telling everyone ‘yeah that’s true, that’s true,’ people just don’t realize how lucky they are to not have to do that.”
The new WEST swimmers are seeing a different Windsor than both Rhode and Masse. Swimming has taken over the city. A removable 25-meter pool has been built in the Spitfire’s hockey arena in order to meet seating demands by FINA. For just one week, Masse’s hockey-crazed hometown will be home to the best swimmers from around the world, including her, showcasing how far both she and the city of Windsor have come in swimming.