Canadians using Universiade as training ground

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KAZAN, Russia – In an ocean of things different William Brothers was relieved when he discovered an island of something the same.

Brothers, the distance swimmer from Island Swimming in Victoria, heaved a sigh of relief when he saw the athletes’ cafeteria at the 2013 Summer Universiade in Kazan, Russia, served spaghetti. Chowing down on a plate of pasta and listening to loud music are parts of Brothers’ race-day ritual.

“The cafeteria is great,” Brothers said as he and his teammates prepared for Wednesday’s first day of the swim competition at the world student games.

“It’s basically everything you can think of from European food to pasta and Asian food.”

This year’s Summer Universiade is expected to attract more than 13,500 university athletes from more than 170 countries participating in 13 mandatory and 14 optional sports.

Swimming Canada has sent a 38-member team (19 men and 19 women) to Kazan. Included are eight swimmers who competed at last summer’s London Olympics and 14 who will also represent Canada at the FINA World Championships which begin July 19 in Barcelona.

“What we’ve got here is a pretty solid team as far as depth,” said team leader Lance Cansdale, head coach of the Dalhousie University swim team.

Cansdale believes Canada’s swimmers have the potential to at least match the three silver medals won in the pool at the 2011 Universiade in Shenzhen, China. Maybe more importantly, the competition is being used as a training ground to breed the attitude and desire needed to succeed at future international events.

“We have some goals we have sort of set for ourselves,” said Cansdale. “They are around cultural change. It’s not necessarily trying to predict how many medals we want to get or things like that.

“What we are trying to look for is an improved professionalism. . .The other thing is to make sure we are ready when we get into the competition to improve upon the times we did domestically to get on the team.”

This will be the first major international competition for many of the young swimmers. It also will be their first experience of swimming preliminaries, semifinals and finals.

“The idea is learning how to manage themselves in an environment that is very foreign,” said Cansdale.

Besides the competition, the athletes must adapt to a different cultural and living conditions. Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan and is the eighth most populous city in Russia. Security is tight and little English is spoken. So far the weather has been hot and humid. The sun rises at 3:30 a.m. and sets at midnight.

“It can be an overwhelming experience for somebody who is inexperienced,” said Cansdale. “It’s an opportunity to be in this environment.”

Brothers, who swims the 1,500-metre and 800-m freestyle, competed at the 2010 Junior Pan Pacific Championships, and 2011 World Junior Championships.

“The junior team stuff has helped me with my nerves and everything,” he said.

“I’m feeling good and hopefully I can swim a lifetime best.”

Olympic veterans like Savannah King of Vernon, B.C., Brittany MacLean of Etobicoke, Ont., Katerine Savard of Cap-Rouge, Que., Tera Van Beilen of Oakville, Ont., Tommy Gossland of Nanaimo, B.C., and Alec Page of Cortes Island, B.C., are using the Universiade as a stepping stone to the World Championships.

MacLean, who finished seventh in the 400-metre freestyle in London, is recovering from a shoulder injury and a hamstring she injured at the Canadian trials in Victoria.

“I haven’t had a really big international meet since the Olympics,” said the 19-year-old who swims for the University of Georgia. “It’s going to be really good for me to race some of the best in the world.

“It’s a great chance for me to get off the blocks some more times before the big show.”

Potential podium threats for Canada include Van Beilen, who won medals in the 50-m and 100-m breaststroke at the 2011 Universiade; Savard, who has set Canadian records in the 50-m and 100-metre butterfly; plus the relay teams.

“Our goal is to try to be better than we were two years ago,” said Cansdale.

“The medals are the icing on the top. If we do the things we initially set out to do, I think we are going to find more second swims in the semifinals, more kids moving into the finals, and in that way we are also going to be challenging a lot more for the podium.”

Winning won’t be easy in Kazan. The Russian team competing at the Universiade is the same group headed to the World Championships. Germany, Japan, Australia and the U.S. are also expected to send strong contingents.

“A lot of other countries are starting to use (the competition) the same way we are, for the same reasons,” said Cansdale. “In the last three Universiades the improvement curve and the depth of field have really risen.

“What might have been a third place three years ago might be an eighth-place finish this time.”

Canada has a strong swimming history at the Universiade. Since the first competition in 1959, Canadian swimmers have won 98 medals, including 21 gold.

“I couldn’t give you a number exactly want what we want or what we hope,” said Cansdale. “I really think the team we’ve got is as good as anything we’ve sent probably since early 90’s or late 80’s.”

The Universiade swimming competition ends July 17.

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