You wouldn’t have known by their reactions that Canada had just won a gold medal at the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m).
In fact, the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay team looked a little disappointed for a moment. Katerine Savard, Taylor Ruck, Kennedy Goss and Penny Oleksiak had just taken more than 10 seconds off the Canadian record, and their time of 7:33.89 was nearly five seconds ahead of second-placed USA. They had just won Canada’s first-ever world swimming gold medal on home territory. But they had come so close to a world record they could taste it, and they weren’t completely satisfied.
That’s just one example of how the culture of Canadian swimming is changing, which was on display as Canada hosted the short-course Worlds in Windsor, Ontario. Of course the girls were all smiles on the podium a few minutes later, but performing on the world stage and wanting more are becoming the norm for Canada. If anyone thought Canadian swimming’s six-medal performance at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games was a flash in the pan, they served notice in Windsor that they’re here to stay.
More than 860 athletes from 153 countries competed at the championships. And although Team USA topped the table with 30 medals, Canada’s eight-medal showing tied the nation’s best ever at the event. Canada, which had just one medal at the previous four world short-course championships, matched its total from the previous seven editions combined. The country also set 17 national records and 15 of the 31 team members left with a medal.
Were the Canadian athletes surprised they swam as well as they did?
“We knew the other teams would be strong, but we’re not really surprised we went as fast as we did,” said 16-year-old Oleksiak, who emerged as a star with four Olympic medals in Rio.
“We’re trying to show people that we didn’t just go fast at the Olympics, we’re continuing to do it at the world stage.”
Oleksiak added four more medals in Windsor to put an exclamation mark on her 2016, which saw her go on to win the two biggest sports awards in Canada. It’s not just pure performance that showed what she and her team-mates were made of in Windsor, however, but rather how they handled themselves through adversity. See World Championships in Windsor results
Kylie Masse of Canada was the other revelation in Windsor. Masse, 20, was new to the senior national team in 2016. After bursting on to the scene with bronze in the 100 back in Rio, she found her face on posters and billboards around Windsor and took on extra promotional duties and media demands as the event ambassador. She finished behind only Hungarian superstar Katinka Hosszu in 56.24.
“I was just focusing on what I’ve been practising for the past few months after Rio and just tried to do my best here,” Masse said.
“I was pretty nervous before, being at home and having a lot of people here watching. I tried to decrease that pressure as much as I could. I just kind of go through my head."
A few years ago Masse was an age-group swimmer, swimming in conditions “where we swam like sardines in a can”, as Windsor Essex Swim Team head coach Andrei Semenov recalled. Now swimming lessons and clubs in Windsor are reporting an increase in popularity. And while the competition pool was housed temporarily in Windsor’s ice hockey arena, the six-lane 25-metre warm-down pool remains a legacy of the event.
Paired with the Windsor International Aquatic Training Centre, which features a 50m pool and diving tank, the city’s investment in aquatics could continue paying off for years to come.
“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.”
Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens believes the swimming community is still growing in Windsor, which didn’t have a 50m pool until 2011.
“We had very inadequate pool facilities but in four years we’ve moved the needle from being substandard to being above anywhere else in Canada,” he says.
”Aside from the economic impact (of hosting the worlds), even if we inspire one person to get in the water and train then it’s worth it. Every kid has potential and if you can tap and unlock that potential and you give them a good coach and great facilities like we have in Windsor you can get performance like Kylie Masse delivers.”
That inspiration is rippling beyond into the rest of the country, and maybe even throughout the world as other mid-sized cities can look to Windsor’s example when bidding for events.
“Windsor should be really proud,” Dilkens said. “We tend to underestimate ourselves and what we can deliver. So when you show the world we can host this type of event and in the end deliver, it’s pretty spectacular.”