VANCOUVER – Canada’s best swimmers will be travelling a lot of miles this summer competing at major competitions like the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, and the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia.
The Mel Zajac Canada Cup, being held this weekend at the UBC Aquatic Centre in Vancouver, will be an important step on that journey. Members of Swimming Canada’s national team will use the meet as a yardstick to measure their preparation while searching for ways to swim faster.
John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director, said the meet serves as an important training session in advance of a busy summer.
“It’s a means to an end,” said Atkinson. “It gives everybody an opportunity to try out things and see where they are at. It gives people an opportunity to test out things under race conditions.”
For most swimmers the process will be as important as the results posted. Recording a faster time at this year’s meet compared to last year means “you are heading in the right direction,” said Atkinson.
“It’s not about comparing what they did at the Canadian Swimming Trials or what they are looking to do at the Games or the championships this summer. It’s about the specifics of what they are working on with their coach.”
For someone like Tera Van Beilen of the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre – Vancouver, the Zajac meet is a chance to work on race tactics and test training strategies.
“There are a couple of things I have been working on,” said Van Beilen, a member of Canada’s 2012 Olympic team. “This is kind of a trial run to see how things are going.
“Based on how I do this meet, you can evaluate and head into another training block. I’m not looking for any best times or anything . . . (but) I would like to do faster than what I was last year at this meet.”
Other national team members hitting the water this weekend include Olympic and world championship medallist Ryan Cochrane of Victoria, Canadian record holder Katerine Savard of Pont-Rouge, Que., and world championship medallist Hilary Caldwell of White Rock, B.C.
The 51st annual Zajac meet has also attracted international stars like American Missy Franklin, winner of four gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics; her U.S. teammate and Olympic gold medallist Rachel Bootsma; and four-time Olympian George Bovell from Trinidad and Tobago.
In the past swimming greats like Brent Hayden, Ryan Lochte, Grant Hackett, Lenny Krayzelburg and Natalie Coughlin have all competed at the Zajac meet.
The competition begins Thursday night and ends Sunday.
Swimming Canada is sending a 30-member team to the Commonwealth Games, which run July 23 to Aug. 3, and a 36-strong contingent to the Pan Pacs Aug. 21-25. There are 19 swimmers with national team experience plus 18 who will be representing Canada at the senior level for the first time.
The variety in experience means national team swimmers will approach the Zajac meet with different goals in mind.
“For some it might be looking at specific elements within their race,” said Atkinson. “If they are swimming 200 metres it might be a 100-metre split. It might be the stroke rate they can hold for the first 100 metres of the race.
“It’s more the process, and what the coach wants them to try and achieve, which is the important thing, not necessarily the time on the board.”
The chance to work with athletes competing in the 4×100-m and 4×200-m freestyle relay teams is especially important. It will help the coaching staff make decisions on who will swim the relays at the different competitions.
“They get to race together as a team, work with the coaches who will look after them at the Commonwealth Games or Pan Pacs,” Atkinson said.
“They get on the blocks . . . they start to work and move as a real team should do. I think it will be great for them to get together.”
Bringing the national team together also helps unify the swimmers and strengthen team spirit. Athletes are selected at trials but they don’t have a chance to become a team until training camps, usually held just prior to the event.
“What I am trying to do this time is try and build the sense of team earlier than what we normally would do,” said Atkinson. “We will get the team together for a competition like this where we have some very good domestic opportunities for people to race in Canada.”
Van Beilen likes the idea of team building.
“Speaking from my experience I really build off a team atmosphere kind of thing,” said the Oakville, Ont., native. “The more I can be with my teammates, and the more I can spend time with them and feed off their energy, the more excited and confident I feel going into meets.
“It just kind of makes me in a happy place where I am excited to race.”
Besides charting the national team members, the Swimming Canada coaching staff will be keeping an eye open for the next generation of Canadian stars.
“Whenever we get to any competition we are always monitoring and looking at how people are doing,” said Atkinson. “There is always that chance and opportunity to look at who is there, who is in the pipeline, and how people are progressing.”