A changing of the guard in Canadian diving ahead of Montreal World Cup event

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MONTREAL — Canadian diver Caeli McKay has a pretty unusual nickname for a 23-year-old.

"I actually get called ‘Grandma,’” the Tokyo Olympian from Calgary said Wednesday from the Olympic Pool. “In the gym, I get called ‘Grandma.’ Already. I’m only 23.”

Canada’s senior diving team is full of young, new faces entering this weekend’s World Aquatics Diving World Cup in Montreal as the squad undergoes a changing of the guard.

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Montreal’s Jennifer Abel and Meaghan Benfeito, both two-time Olympic medallists, have retired since the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Seven of the 10 Canadian divers competing in this weekend’s event, which runs Friday through Sunday with individual and synchronized competitions, were born in 2001 or later.

But that doesn’t mean this group can’t make a splash, says Mary Carroll, one of Canada’s senior diving coaches.

“We have a new team and we have a young team," said Carroll, who’s based out of Saskatoon. "But there's divers that can beat the (best-in-the-world) Chinese here."

Canadian divers have reached the podium at the last seven Olympic Games, and Carroll expects that success to continue. She thinks Canada can medal in every event this weekend and compete at a top level at the Paris 2024 Games and beyond.

“We have Pamela (Ware) who's continued diving, and Celina Toth,” she said. “But the rest of the team is like 17 to 23, and they're going to be around for a long time.

“We're going to keep the legacy of Jen Abel, and we're going to keep the legacy of Meaghan Benfeito. And we're starting with the males now to dominate the way Alex (Despatie) used to. So it’s pretty exciting.”

Highlighting the new era are two young podium threats on the men’s side, where Canada hasn’t had much success since Despatie won three world championships and two Olympic silver medals in the 2000s.

Rylan Wiens, a 21-year-old from Pike Lake, Sask., and 20-year-old Nathan Zsmobor-Murray of Pointe-Claire, Que., won bronze as a pair in the 10-metre synchronized dive at the 2022 world championships, a first in that event in Canadian diving history.

“Every time they've gone out in a competition so far, they've been on the podium, and they're fighting not just for a bronze,” said Carroll. "Rylan and Nathan, they're setting the tempo for the rest of the junior divers."

Zsmobor-Murray hopes a medal at worlds could be a springboard toward an Olympic podium.

“If you told me two years ago that I’d win a medal at the worlds, I’d say ‘yeah, maybe, not so sure,’” said Zsmobor-Murray. “Now that I’ve done that, it gives me a big boost of confidence. Now I think we’re capable of getting a medal at the Olympics.”

Bryden Hattie, a 21-year-old from Victoria, is also competing in the men's individual three-metre event.

On the women’s side, McKay is competing individually in the 10-metre and teaming up with 17-year-old Kate Miller of Ottawa in the 10-metre synchro after former partner Benfeito retired. McKay injured her ankle one month before Tokyo, but persevered and competed in the games on virtually one leg — finishing fourth in the 10-metre synchro with Benfeito.

After having her ankle reconstructed in October, McKay says she’s finally back and healthy, but is still ramping up to the level of training she’s used to.

Breaking onto the scene is Mia Vallee, who will be competing in front of over 25 friends and family as a native of nearby Beaconsfield, Que.

The 22-year-old Vallee has taken a different path than most of Canada’s national divers, opting to go to the University of Miami for school and compete in the NCAA.

Last year, she won silver in the three-metre at the world championships for Canada and was named Diving Plongeon Canada’s female Athlete of the Year. She’ll be competing in the three-metre individual event again this weekend.

Vallee is also partnering with Ware in the three-metre synchro. Ware spent last season working on the mental side of her game after making a mistake in her approach to a dive in Tokyo and being forced to pull up. This weekend is Ware first major event since the 2020 Games.

“I’m really looking forward to competing,” she said. “Last year was really rough because of what happened in Tokyo.

“Now everything is just, I feel very confident and happy … and like a new me.”

“She's back. She's back,” said Carroll. “After Tokyo I think she had a tough time coming back but she knew like ‘I'm not giving up.’

“She's very worthy of a medal and she knows it and she's training hard. She's back and she's going to fight against the Chinese.”

Toth, Renee Batalla and Margo Erlam round out the Canadian women.

The event opens with individual preliminary rounds on Friday and Saturday morning, with the men’s 10-metre synchro and women’s three-metre synchro finals on Friday afternoon, and the women’s 10-metre synchro and men’s three-metre synchro finals on Saturday. The individual finals and team event will on be on Sunday.

It’s Montreal’s first senior diving event since 2020 and the second of three World Cup events this year. The first was held in Xi’an, China in April, the third is a Super Final this August in Berlin, Germany.

Over 20 countries will be competing this weekend, including China, which won all nine gold medals at the first World Cup event.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.

Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press