VANCOUVER – Swimming Canada’s focus on developing relay teams is paying early dividends.

Freestyle relays are no longer just about taking the four fastest swimmers from the 100- and 200-metre events at Trials and standing them up at a major international meet. New initiatives are in the works to identify relay swimmers earlier, and build team cohesion before and after selection meets.

The results were on display this past weekend at the Mel Zajac Canada Cup – Vancouver. Canadian relay teams that qualified at the April’s Canadian Swimming Trials in Victoria stood up together to compete as a team. A highlight came Saturday when the women’s 4×200-m free relay team of Samantha Cheverton, Alyson Ackman, Emily Overholt and Brittany MacLean took on a strong opponent in the University of California, Berkeley Golden Bears.

The Bears were anchored by American Olympic star Missy Franklin, but the Canadians beat them by nearly four seconds, setting a new meeting record (8:08.00) in the process.

It was a great experience, whether you ask Olympic veterans Cheverton, 25, and MacLean, 20, or national team rookies Ackman, 21, and Overholt, 16.

“We want to give them experience and this is the first stepping stone for us to work together and use each other to motivate each other,” MacLean said.

Although she’s only 20, MacLean is already moving into a leadership role, which included a little pre-race huddle speech to keep the girls loose and focused. She’s looking forward to what she and her teammates can do at this summer’s Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships

“We’re hoping to do some big things this summer,” MacLean said. “I’m excited for what these girls can experience this summer and hopefully they’ll have many more for the years to come.”

Ackman echoed that sentiment.

“Relay takeovers are such a small thing but they make a big difference. Just being with the girls and cheering for them made me really excited for the summer and what we can do in the summer,” said Ackman, who could be seen cheering loudly during her teammates’ legs. “I really want to just help these girls. We have medalling potential at Commonwealth Games, which is really exciting.”

Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson was on hand to watch the meet, which featured the entire Canadian national team. Atkinson was happy to see the relay teams swimming together and racing well.

“It’s really important that they have that opportunity to get off the blocks together as a team. I think that worked really well for them,” Atkinson said. “This (Canada Cup) was a great opportunity for the Canadian swimming team to get together, to start to build the team environment for when we go to Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs.”

National Junior Coach Ken McKinnon, meanwhile, was happy to see Overholt in the mix as a graduate of the National Development Team Program. Fresh off the Male Junior Relay Initiative, which identified young male freestylers at an NFL Combine style camp and swam them together at the Charlotte Grand Prix, he’s also seeing buy-in from Canadian coaches. For example, UBC Dolphins coach Steve Price swam a team of 18- and 19-year-olds who took part in the initiative together. Stefan Milosevic, Jonathan Brown, Marshal Parker and Justin Chan finished second behind the Canadian senior team in the men’s 4×100 free relay Friday.

“That’s exactly the type of response John and I are looking for. There are many ways to address our male relay performances but we’ve chosen the camp and the Charlotte Tour. It’s very positive that Coach Price followed up by keeping the four UBC boys that were on the Charlotte tour together and testing them in the finals against the Canadian Team. The boys took the challenge seriously, enjoyed the experience and swam well,” McKinnon said.

“Our focus is to try to get the swimmers and the coaches in Canada motivated and focused on improving in these key events: the 100 and 200 free. This will allow us in Swimming Canada to direct more resources to supporting relay type initiatives as we improve. Getting buy in and interest in these relay initiatives from the key swimmers and coaches will help us get to the finals and eventually the podium at the Olympics and World Championships.”