Canadian swimmer Ilya Kharun, son of Cirque du Soleil acrobats, turning heads at national trials

Ilya Kharun looks up at his time after winning the men's 200-metre butterfly at the Canadian swimming trials in Toronto on Friday. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Ilya Kharun looks up at his time after winning the men's 200-metre butterfly at the Canadian swimming trials in Toronto on Friday. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Canadian swimmer Ilya Kharun knows a thing or two about stepping into the spotlight and stealing the show.

The 18-year-old who was born in Montreal but has spent the majority of his life living in the United States is the son of two parents who spent most of their lives performing with Cirque du Soleil.

"My family was travelling around the world and I just happened to be born in Montreal," he told CBC Sports at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre during national trials this week.

"My parents were always performers. Now they're retired. I was always part of the experience. My family were acrobats. Both my mom and dad were in the show."

Kharun only spent the first few months of his life in Montreal with his travelling acrobat parents before moving to Las Vegas.

That's where he's lived since he was about one years old.

"My mom put me in swimming at a young age. I was like four years old. I just went from there," Kharun said.

Unexpected turn

He's been a longtime member of the Sandpipers program in Nevada and less than a year ago was on the path to compete for the United States at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Hawaii last August.

But here's the thing — Kharun had a Canadian passport and not an American passport. His swimming path took an unexpected turn in a hurry.

"It happened really quick. I was like, alright, I'm a Canadian now," he said.

America's loss has been Canada's gain and Kharun says he's feeling right where he belongs wearing the maple leaf.

"The guys were really welcoming. They really wanted me on the team. I feel right at home," he said.

This week at the national swim trials Kharun has been once again turning heads at the pool. On Friday night he nearly broke his national record in the 200-metre fly. Earlier in the week he posted a personal-best time in the 100m fly. He'll be representing Canada at worlds in Fukuoka, Japan this summer.

Kharun says Canadian swimming fans should be excited about what he's going to do in the pool.

"Hopefully they can expect a lot from me," he said, smiling.

At the short course worlds in Melbourne last December, the young swimming phenom finished with three Canadian records, two world junior records and two medals.

Longtime Canadian swimming commentator Byron MacDonald, who swam for Canada at the 1972 Olympics, says Kharun is on a meteoric trajectory.

"His improvement arc has been so dramatic that you usually don't level off when you're on an arc like that," MacDonald said.

"He's so young. He's going to get stronger. He's going to move into a senior's men's program where he's going to get challenged day in and day out."

WATCH | Kharun sets world junior, Canadian records in 100m fly at short course worlds:

Kharun is in his final year of high school. He's committed to the University of Arizona and will be coached by legendary Bob Bowman, who famously helped Michael Phelps to 23 Olympic gold medals.

MacDonald says Kharun's growth will be greatly helped by being part of Bowman's Arizona program, which in turn will help Canada's swimming program.

"It helps Canada tremendously because he'll not only do something wonderful in the 200m butterfly but now what happens it frees up Josh Liendo to swim the freestyle in the medley relay. And this young man can do the butterfly," MacDonald said.

"When he swims, it looks so effortless. He has the kind of stroke, added strength, he will go faster. And this is still a young man, there's a lot more there."

WATCH | Ilya Kharun a name to watch at Canadian swimming trials: