Worlds will build experience, lay Olympic foundation


BARCELONA –  Fresh faces, new opportunities.

A young Canadian team full of potential will be looking to gain some experience when swimming action at the FINA World Championships shifts to the pool Sunday in Barcelona. The bi-annual championships, which run until Aug. 4., will help lay the foundation for the team that will compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“It’s very much in the first year of a four-year plan,” said Randy Bennett, the Canadian team head coach. “We need to retool and create opportunity for young kids and plan on the next four years. Instead of counting medals this year we are counting top-eight finishes.”

Swimming Canada is sending a 34-member team (17 men, 17 women) to the championships.  Among the veterans will be two-time Olympic medallist Ryan Cochrane, 24, of Victoria, plus former Olympians like Audrey Lacroix, 29, of Pont-Rouge, Que., Savannah King, 21, of Vernon, B.C., and Alec Page, 19, of Cortes Island, B.C.

Among the new faces will be Noemie Thomas, 17, of Vancouver, Will Brothers, 18, of Victoria, and Erika Seltenreich-Hodgson, 18, of Ottawa.

The team travelled to Barcelona today after spending more than a week preparing at a staging camp in Torremolinos, a resort town in the Costa del Sol.

“The camp went great. The swimmers were very professional and we moved well as a team,” Bennett said. “The environment for training was world-class, now we’re looking forward to the competition.”

The worlds will be the first major international competition for some of the young athletes and a chance to prove they can follow in the footsteps of retired veterans like Brent Hayden, Annamay Pierse and Julia Wilkinson.

“There’s opportunity and some of these young kids have taken advantage of it,” said Bennett, who is head coach at the Victoria Academy of Swimming. “There are lots of new faces.”

The meet will help show which swimmers have promise on the international stage and who could compete in Rio and future Olympics.

“Everybody on the team knows why we’re here, and that’s to compete with the world’s best,” said Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson. “Are we improving from heat swims to semifinals, or from heats to finals, or from semifinals to finals? All of this for me is how we’re going to measure our improvement and our success at the meet, along with of course making finals and winning medals. But it’s an individual improvement that we’re looking for from every athlete on the team.”

“They need to realize it’s going to get harder,” added Bennett. “This is a group of kids that have stepped it up this year. Now it’s whether or not they continue to progress. They have to get faster and faster to get to the standards that are going to be required to make the team going forward.”

Eric Hedlin of Victoria has already won a medal for Canada at the championships, finishing second in the men’s 5-kilometre swim.

Canada won three silvers and a bronze medal in the pool at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, China. Cochrane won silver in the 800-metres and 1,500-m. He remains a threat again this year.

“He’s the swimmer that constantly has been in the top three in the world the last five years,” said Bennett. “Other kids are going to need significant breakthroughs to get to the podium  level.

“That’s why we are talking about being top eight.”

Cochrane accepts the expectations heaped on him.

“I always worry about winning medals,” he said. “At the end of the day that’s what I want for myself, that’s what I’ve always driven toward.

“The pressure is there but I don’t think it’s too much stress. We have a lot of athletes that are on the cusp.”

One swimmer with a great chance of reaching a final is butterfly specialist Katerine Savard of Pont-Rouge, Que. The 20-year-old won gold in the 100-m butterfly at the recent Summer Universiade in Kazan, Russia, and finished second in the 50-m, where she lowered her own Canadian record. She comes into the world championships ranked second in the world in the 100-m fly.

Thomas, meanwhile, is not far behind at seventh in the world this year. The Canadian short-course record holder has been setting personal bests in the long-course pool and could also be a factor at worlds.

“Both those fly girls are very much the future,” said Bennett.

The women’s 4×200-m freestyle relay team has the potential for a medal. Brittany MacLean, 19, of Etobicoke, Ont., earned two bronze medals at the Universiade swimming the 4×100 and 4×200-m freestyle relays.

Bennett has used the Canadian track men’s 4×100-m relay team at the London Olympics as an example for his male relay swimmers in Barcelona.

The track team of Justyn Warner, Gavin Smellie, Oluseyi Smith and Jared Connaughton were considered medal long shots but finished third. They were disqualified for a lane violation.

“None of the guys made (individual) finals but the collective sum was good enough to win a medal,” said Bennett. “That’s the kind of mindset we need to get on our men’s relays.

“All four boys need to go do their job very well and see if the sum can get them into the top eight.”

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