By Jim Morris
The medals won in two major international competitions are the most obvious way to gauge the success of Canadian swimmers during 2014.
Canadians swam to 11 medals, including four gold, at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, in late July. A few weeks later Canada added another seven podium appearances, highlighted by Ryan Cochrane’s victory in the in the 800-metre freestyle, at the Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia.
“We probably missed three medals at Pan Pacs we should have had,” said John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director, looking back on the year that was. “That’s where the demands of travel and time-zone change were an issue the team had to wrestle with this year.”
While the hardware is a visible sign of achievement, Atkinson said a breakdown of times and world rankings shows the program is making strides in the countdown to the 2016 Summer Olympics and looking ahead to 2020.
“Obviously you can’t ignore the medal counts,” said Atkinson.
“What I (also) look at are several different things. One of them is the athletes’ performance in comparison to the previous year. Are they improving? Are the swimmers that are going to whatever level of championships or games, progressing from the heats into the semifinals or the finals?”
One of the yardsticks Atkinson paid close attention to was if athletes improved their times from selection trials to the event. At the 2013 FINA World Championships only about 50 per cent of the swimmers improved their time in at least one event from the trials to the competition.
This year, 83 per cent of the swimmers at the Commonwealth Games improved their times from the trials.
“That’s the sort of figure we would look at beyond the medals,” said Atkinson. “You know the swimmers you have. You have to look at continual improvement whether that be in time, whether that be in underwater kicking, whether it be in starts, whether it be in turns. You are looking at where people are improving.”
Atkinson hopes to see similar results this year.
“That is something that every swimmer who is on the national team can look at and be part of,” he said. “They can all judge themselves in exactly the same way.
“If someone is 30th in the world one year, are they higher ranked this year than the previous year?”
Cochrane of Victoria and Brittany MacLean of Etobicoke, Ont., both had outstanding seasons. They were named Swimming Canada’s OMEGA Male and Female Swimmers of the year.
Cochrane won two gold medals in Glasgow. He then added a gold and a silver in the 1,500 metres at the Pan Pacs. His bronze in the 1,500 freestyle at the short course world championships in Doha, Qatar, ended a decade-long drought for Canada.
The two-time Olympic medallist ended the year ranked in the world’s top three in the 400, 800 and 1,500 metres.
MacLean won five medals at the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs. She also set Canadian records in the 800 and 1,500 m.
Katerine Savard of Pont-Rouge, Que., also had a strong year, winning gold in the 100 butterfly at the Commonwealth Games. Other individual medallists included fellow Pont-Rouge native Audrey Lacroix, Brooklynn Snoodgrass of Calgary, Hilary Caldwell of White Rock, B.C. and Chantal Van Landeghem of Winnipeg.
This year Canadian swimmers will again compete in two major competitions. The Pan American Games will be held in Toronto from July 20-26, then the FINA World Championships July 24-Aug. 9 in Kazan, Russia. It will be another grueling test for athletes qualifying for both events.
“It’s not easy but it’s the nature of professional sport,” said Atkinson. “While swimming isn’t what people consider a professional sport, the professionalism of the athlete is exactly the same.
“Today’s sporting landscape is athletes have to move from one event to the next. I think they (Canadian swimmers) are becoming more accustomed to doing that. Coaches are working with their athletes toward achieving that. I think it’s something that is possible that they go and produce at both events.”
Swimming Canada plans on sending a team of around 40 to the Pan Ams (36 pool and 4 open water places are available for selection).
“It will be a great opportunity for a home games,” said Atkinson. “Everyone will target a peak performance.”
Atkinson expects a slighter smaller team heading to the world championships.
“Swimming Canada have published polices for both the FINA World Championships and the Pan Am Games that are targeted on progression from heats in both events,” Atkinson said. “The bar is raising and the swimmers are more than capable of rising to the standard, which needs to happen for Canada to be successful at the World and Olympic level.“
Looking past this year, Atkinson believes a solid foundation is being laid for not only the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“Certainly over the next four or five years we have stockpiles of talent that will complement the already performing athletes on the senior team,” he said.
“A lot of the changes we are implementing and working on are geared for results in Tokyo. We will maintain the preparation and the performance for the athletes that can do it in Rio. We are already looking towards Japan and how we are going to do things in Tokyo.”
Work has already begun on improving Canada’s relay teams and there are many opportunities for swimmers and coaches within Swimming Canada.
“We will continue to build our depth in our male and female relay teams and will be conducting a female relay take-off camp after the trials in Toronto and a male and female development team program will again attend the Charlotte USA Pro Swimming Series (formerly Grand Prix) in May.”
Atkinson was also pleased Canadians won 13 medals at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships, Canada’s best ever showing.
“Things are moving within Canadian swimming and it’s not going to stop,” Atkinson said. “We have ground to make on the rest of the world, however we have the coaches and the swimmers to get things done”