‘Kick in the butt:’ Canada’s male swimmers using women’s success as launching point

Eleven Canadian swimmers won medals at the 2016 Olympics. None of them were expected.

Teenagers Penny Oleksiak, Taylor Ruck and Kylie Masse had been pegged as future stars, but 2016 was supposed to merely be the opening act. Instead, they littered the podiums in Rio to the tune of three individual medals and two relay medals.

It’s also notable that none of the medals were won by Canadian men. And it’s likely that will be the same situation at next year’s Olympics in Tokyo, although the addition of the new 4×100-metre mixed medley event gives the men some hope.

Still, the future, according to a pair of prominent Canadian coaches, will be the 2024 Olympics in Paris. That is when they believe Canada’s men will follow the women onto the podium.

“The men are looking good for 2024. They’re not going to be ready for 2020 yet to be medal threats or anything but they might. Several of them might actually make the Olympic team in 2020 but they won’t be major players or anything. They’re just too young physically,” said Byron MacDonald, CBC Sports swimming analyst and University of Toronto swim coach.

“It wouldn’t be my role to limit when they could achieve that success. But I certainly think that by 2024 we will have a very highly functioning men’s team,” said Ben Titley, head coach of the Canadian national swimming program.

That is to say: the potential is there and the pieces are in place, but it will take some time for it to all come together.

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Emerging from the shadows

However, the women’s team just provided the template for early success. In general, athletes are peaking younger than ever. And especially in the short distances, Titley said, younger swimmers can surprise their older counterparts.

It also doesn’t hurt that the men have watched the women excel right next to them.

Both Markus Thormeyer, a 21-year-old backstroke specialist, and Yuri Kisil, who at 23 could be considered the veteran of the bunch, admit the women’s success provides a “kick in the butt.”

Thormeyer said that watching Masse swim the 100-metre backstroke right ahead of him at the Canadian team trials in April provided some extra boost.

“It’s like, I need to step up and start doing it too. There are males in Canada who do swim. And you know we just gotta make a name for ourselves. So it’s motivating,” Thormeyer said.

At those trials, the Tsawwassen, B.C., native broke a decade-old Canadian record with a time of 53.35 seconds in the 100. Still, Thormeyer said he isn’t satisfied with the mark that still leaves him nearly five seconds off the world record set by China’s Xu Jiayu at a World Cup event in 2018.

“I wouldn’t be able to achieve my goals without getting that record. So it’s like, it’s nice. But it’s not a be-all, end-all. It’s like ‘OK, I did it. Let’s keep on going,'” Thormeyer said.

Thormeyer tries to remain inwardly focused when he dives into the pool, rather than worrying about the opposition. A swimmer must concentrate on each and every detail to maximize the one controllable performance — his or her own.

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“It’s like I’ve gotta do everything right. That’s what swimming is. You have to hit the dive, hit the breakout, have your proper stroke technique into the turn. You have to do your best,” Thormeyer said.

“For me swimming is just doing everything right. It’s not about best times. It’s not about racing people. It’s like making the race as fast as you can.”

Next man up

The aquatics world championships will be the first opportunity for Thormeyer to prove that his progress can translate on the international stage once the swimming competition begins Sunday.

MacDonald said Thormeyer is Canada’s next man up.

“The guy is going to carry the torch for the Canadian team. In the backstroke he’s not top eight in the world yet, but he’s moving in that direction,” MacDonald said.

Despite Thormeyer’s relatively advanced age of 21, he’s still growing into his nearly six-foot-five body.

“I think there’s a lot of room for growth there. I don’t think he’ll even reach that peak necessarily by 2020 and so yeah, I would think he would easily be around for the next four years which will help those young kids,” MacDonald said.

Those young kids, some of whom are five years Thormeyer’s junior, are set to provide the next wave as part of the contingent pegged for 2024 success.

Titley points to Gabe Mastromatteo, Josh Liendo and Cole Pratt as potential future medal winners from Canada.

Gabe Mastromatteo is part of a group of promising Canadian swimmers. (Swimming Canada/Twitter)

Mastromatteo, 17, won gold in the 100 breastroke at the junior Pan Pacific championships in 2018. Liendo, 16, broke the national aged 15-17 record in the 100 butterfly at national trials before lowering it at another meet the following week. Pratt, 16, also earned 200 backstroke bronze at the junior Pan Pacs.

All three teenagers will compete for Canada at the world championships.

It could make for the launching point of a surprising Olympic performance a year from now, and being there with the women should help them form good habits.

“So things can change quite quickly. And it does go in waves and cycles,” Titley said. “But I think that them being a collaborative, supportive group — whether male or female — will help the next generation be just as successful.”

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