Kylie Masse was once the best ever — now she’ll try to do it again
For 368 days, Kylie Masse was the fastest woman to ever swim the 100-metre backstroke.
At the 2017 aquatics world championships, Masse won gold with a then-world record time of 58.10 seconds.
“I was shocked. Like, really shocked and I just was so happy and excited and there’s so many things and emotions going through your head at that moment that it’s kind of hard to piece it together and even feel anything,” Masse said in a recent interview with CBC Sports.
“I was over the moon.”
Masse’s time broke a mark that had stood for eight years. But the Lasalle, Ont., native was only allowed to enjoy her record for just more than a year before American Kathleen Baker swam an even 58 seconds at the U.S. swimming championships in July 2018.
Masse was in Japan preparing for the Pan Pacific Championships when Baker broke her record. She saw the news just before she went to bed, and was stunned that her American foe was able to one-up her, especially since Baker’s meet took place in an outdoor pool where times are traditionally slower.
“So it only really gave me that anger and that motivation to get it back. It kind of gave me a little push going into Pan Pacs,” Masse said.
At that competition in Japan, Masse took gold at 58.61 seconds with Baker clocking in at 58.83 for bronze. Earlier in that summer, with Baker’s U.S. side not included in the Commonwealth Games, Masse again stood atop the podium.
Masse came closest to taking back the mark when she swam 58.16 seconds at the Canadian national team trials in April.
Time to take it back
The world championships in South Korea represent Masse’s next opportunity to snatch back the record in the same pool as Baker.
“I would love to defend my world title and to be on top,” Masse said. “She’s a great competitor and I know she’s always going to throw down a great race. So I’m happy to race her.”
But Baker hasn’t competed since March due to a rib injury, and she recently pulled out of her 200 individual medley event at worlds to focus purely on the backstroke. The 22-year-old from Winston-Salem, N.C., may not be firing on all cylinders.
WATCH | Masse’s world record came with increased expectations:
The Canadian world champion had to adapt after breaking a world record, and then again after it was broken. 2:27
And so for the 23-year-old Masse, the focus must shift onto herself and her own preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Since 2016 it’s been looking at 2020. As swimmers, we’re always looking into the next quadrennial,” said Masse, who captured a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. “Kind of counting down the days and trying to use every race as an opportunity to practise and set yourself up really well for 2020. So it’s very important this summer to see what I can do and just keep plugging away to be the best that I can,”
‘Do your best’
Masse is enrolled at the University of Toronto where she studies Kinesiology. Her swim coach there, Byron MacDonald, says that in the pool, Masse’s only race is the one against time.
“The goal is always not necessarily ever to beat Kathleen or [Australian swimmer] Emily Seebohm or whoever it is, right? It’s always to do your best,” said MacDonald, a CBC Sports swim analyst.
And he doesn’t mean “do your best” like children hear “just do your best.” The best for Masse would mean eclipsing her personal best, and probably setting a new world record.
“The mantra that we have with Kylie is that she’s always trying to improve and get better,” MacDonald said. “If you hold the world record then you’re gonna have to break the world record to get better.”
“The best” also means expanding her swimming repertoire beyond the 100. While Masse has been firmly locked into backstroke since her first year at U of T, she’s now aiming for world records at different distances. Masse won the 200 backstroke at the Commonwealth Games and broke her own Canadian record in the event at national trials in April with a time of two minutes, 5.94 seconds. American Missy Franklin currently holds the 200 world record at 2:04.06.
Swimming for history
For Masse, the world championships mark the beginning of a new year-long cycle. MacDonald says Masse intends on mostly taking the next year off school (she’ll “maybe take one course”) to focus on the pool in the lead-up to Tokyo. It’s a tact many Olympic athletes take, and especially for aquatics competitors, worlds make for a nice start.
“It’s definitely good to be able to perform a year out from the Olympics but if you don’t for whatever reason it doesn’t mean that you can’t perform very well at the Games,” MacDonald said.
To MacDonald’s point, none of Masse, Penny Oleksiak or Taylor Ruck even swam at the 2015 worlds ahead of the Rio Olympics, yet all three came away with Olympic medals. The competition is a good bellwether for established swimmers — especially the older ones, who may be losing a stride — but it is not predictive.
Masse doesn’t care for predictions at this point, anyway. She’s swimming for history, and every dive into the pool is another opportunity to reclaim her world record.
It would just be that much sweeter if Baker and some of the world’s other top swimmers were in the lane next to her.
“They’re all so talented so it could be anyone’s race. I think that’s what really fuels me.”