By Jim Morris
GOLD COAST, Australia – A young Canadian swim team that punched above its weight at the recent Commonwealth Games is now primed to climb into the ring again at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships.
Canadian swimmers won 11 medals at the Games in Glasgow, Scotland, but will face an even deeper international field at the five-day Pan Pacs, which begin Thursday at Gold Coast, Australia.
Sportsnet One will televise all four days of pool swimming, with nightly 8 p.m. shows beginning Thursday.
John Atkinson, Swimming Canada high performance director, said the Pan Pacs will test swimmers’ ability to battle through the qualifying rounds while saving some punch for the finals. The Pan Pacs allow a maximum of two competitors from each country in the final.
“Not only are you swimming against the rest of the world, you are competing against the rest of your team,” Atkinson said. “The heats are going to be where the team has to be ready to stand up and perform.
“The standard to progress to the finals will be tough. It will be a challenging competition. They have to be ready to do it in the mornings.”
Leading the team in Australia will be two-time Olympic medallist Ryan Cochrane; marathon swimmer Richard Weinberger, a bronze medallist at the 2012 London Olympics; backstroker Hilary Caldwell, a bronze medallist at Commonwealth Games and last year’s world championships; and Katerine Savard, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist who is ranked third in the world in the 100-metre butterfly.
Others with podium potential include veteran Audrey Lacroix, who won gold in Glasgow in the 200-m butterfly, and Brittany MacLean, who set a Canadian record while winning bronze in the 800-m freestyle at the Commonwealth Games.
“At this sort of meet the expectation would be in the two to four medal range,” said Atkinson. “Based on the Commonwealth Games, and looking at the U.S. trials and what the Australians did (in Glasgow) that’s where we are at.
“It will be more challenging for athletes to progress from heats and we have to focus on being ready in the morning to get people back in the finals.”
Four years ago a 57-member Canadian team won 11 medals (two gold, two silver, seven bronze) at the Pan Pacs in Irving, Calif. Cochrane led the team with two gold and a silver, while retired freestyler Brent Hayden had a silver and bronze.
Only 10 swimmers from that team – three men and seven women – will be part of the 41-member contingent this year. Returning medallists include Cochrane; Weinberger, bronze in the 10-k open water swim; and Victoria Poon, a member of the 4×100-m free relay.
For young swimmers like freestyler Yuri Kisil, backstroker Brooklynn Snodgrass; and individual medley swimmers Luke Reilly and Emily Overholt, the Pan Pacs will be a learning tool. For many it will be their first step down the road toward the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“It’s a younger team,” said Atkinson. “It’s battling to grasp the opportunities they have been given to continue to improve.
“This is going to be the backbone of the team over a number of years.”
What the Swimming Canada coaching staff wants to see from the young swimmers is an improvement in times from what they recorded at the Canadian Swimming Trials in April in Victoria, through the heats at the Pan Pacs.
It’s a short turn around between the Commonwealth Games and the Pan Pacs, plus a lot of travelling. Atkinson doubts fatigue will be a factor.
“It’s the nature of sport,” he said. “It’s the same for the Australians and the Kiwis and other nations that are here.
“We’ve not made a thing of it. We’ve just said they have to deal with it and move on.”
Atkinson was satisfied with the Canadian team’s results in the pool at the Commonwealth Games.
“On paper I think we exceeded what we were actually ranked to achieve, based on current world rankings,” he said.
“I think the approach they had in Glasgow is they weren’t intimidated by the situation. They got in and raced.”
Canada had 50 swims in the finals at the Commonwealth Games and the team won one more medal in Glasgow than it did four years ago at the Games in Delhi. In 2010 only one women’s relay team won a medal, while three relay teams reached the podium this year.
At last year’s world championships 17 of 34 swimmers improved their times from the trials. In Glasgow the improvement rate was 83 per cent.
Tiny steps maybe, but steps in the right direction.
“These figures are all where I want to see Canadian swimming head,” said Atkinson.
“On the journey that we are on of improvement, it was a success. It’s not where we want to be at the end of the day but certainly, for where we are at with the team, we had a really good solid Commonwealth Games which we can use now to spring forward to the Pan Pacs.”