Canada's Olympic swim trials get underway after pandemic postponements

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The long wait is over for Canada's top swimmers.

The Olympic swim trials start Saturday in Toronto's Pan Am Sports Centre after cancellation in 2020 and a pair of postponements in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Now that trials is finally happening, it's really exciting right now," said backstroker Markus Thormeyer of Delta, B.C.

The five-day trials without spectators conclude Wednesday, which is a month out from the July 23 opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Swimmers collected six medals in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, which accounted for almost a third of Canada's 22 medals there.

Toronto's Penny Oleksiak led the charge with freestyle gold and butterfly silver at age 16. She also anchored the women's freestyle relay teams to a pair of bronze medals.

Just over 180 swimmers were invited from 64 clubs to race for spots on the 2021 Olympic team under pandemic protocols and restrictions at the Pan Am Sports Centre.

The top two finishers in each event, who must also swim 'A' qualifying times, earn the right to race in Tokyo.

Swimming Canada high-performance director John Atkinson predicts a team of roughly 25 swimmers will be named next week.

Athletes and their coaches, and Swimming Canada, ran a pandemic gauntlet to these trials dating back to 2020.

The swimmers were at a final staging camp in Florida for April trials when COVID-19 descended upon the world and ultimately postponed the 2020 Tokyo Games to 2021.

This year's trials in April were postponed to May and again to June as Ontario grappled with high rates of infection.

A post-trials qualifying meet scheduled for June, which would have given swimmers another chance to make the team, was scrapped.

"We had to get to grips with what we were going to do for the trials scheduled for April, then delayed to May and then we had a final qualifier that became the trials," Atkinson said.

"For the athletes, who I feel for the most, the coaches, (there is) a lot of psychological stress, mental stress and physical stress issues when you're under continual stress for a long period of time.

"In talking with athletes and talking with coaches, they were just desperate for some sort of certainty."

Swimming Canada invoked an unforeseen circumstances clause in January to nominate a half-dozen athletes in events in which they excel: Oleksiak, Thormeyer, world champion backstroker Kylie Masse of LaSalle, Ont., world champion butterflyer Maggie Mac Neil of London, Ont., Taylor Ruck of Kelowna, B.C., and Sydney Pickrem of Clearwater, Fla.

Oleksiak was pre-selected to race the 200 freestyle in Tokyo, but must race the 100 at trials to qualify in it.

With virtually no races in a 50-metre pool for months, the pre-selected swimmers are expected to get on the start blocks in their Olympic events at trials to shake off race rust.

"Training that long is pretty hard because usually you have the excitement of competing every couple months where you can see how the changes you made in training have transferred into racing or just see how fit you are, or just trying to work on specific race strategies," Thormeyer said.

"Not having that, it can stress you out if you get to trials and you haven't had a long-course race in 15 months."

CBC will livestream all heats and finals. To make the atmosphere less sterile, clubs were invited to send their banners for display on the pool deck.

People can record cheers for a specific swimmer on Swimming Canada's website that will be added to canned crowd noise. Winning athletes will be provided virtual calls with family and friends after their races.

The Paralympic portion of trials was cancelled because rescheduling to June conflicted with an international para-swimming event in Berlin.

Eight swimmers, including triple Paralympic gold medallist Aurelia Rivard, qualified for Tokyo by winning medals at the 2019 world championship.

Seven who made world finals were added to the team in May and the remaining four were chosen this month based on training data and video time trials.

Canadian swimmers faced unprecedented challenges on the road to Tokyo, but Atkinson says it's time to put the stress aside and race.

"You will stand on the block, you will race down the middle of your 50-metre lane and turn and come back to the wall, and that's all the same," he said.

"What's going on around it, yes, is going to be different, but the blocks the same, the water's the same and you're in a great pool, the legacy pool from the Pan Am Games.

"You're in it and you've got a chance."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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