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While many sporting events around the world have returned to pre-pandemic normalcy – with packed stadiums and raucous crowds – COVID-19 still looms large over the 2021 Canadian swim trials.
Toronto's cavernous Pan Am Sports Centre, an esthetic marvel, would usually be packed for this event. Instead, it will remain largely empty as Canadian swimmers take their shot at fulfilling their Olympic dreams.
The vacant seats would have been unimaginable six years ago at the 2015 Pan Am Games. An event that has largely been heralded as a turning point for the Canadian swim program.
"The crowd was unbelievable, and the support was fantastic," recalls Swim Canada's high performance director John Atkinson. "That was one of those key moments where the swim team developed. Of course, coming back now it is not going to be like that."
Canadian athletes hoping to realize their ultimate goal after years of training and sacrifice will not be able to celebrate with family and friends – or soak up the adulation of a roaring crowd.
"It's different, obviously, but it's something we had to accept a long time ago," says LaSalle, Ont., native Kylie Masse, who is swimming at these trials but has already been guaranteed a ticket to Tokyo. "We have been in the pool by ourselves with limited groups and limited swimmers for so long.
"Obviously it's difficult when you put so much on the line and you are trying to get to Tokyo without your support system around you."
With the Olympics a little over a month away, athlete safety is paramount. Anybody accessing the building must complete multiple forms and pass a COVID-19 test before entering. The only place masks aren't required is in the pool.
It's something swimmers need to get used to as the safety protocols in Tokyo are likely to be even more restrictive.
"I really feel that our athletes that are going to go to Tokyo who are able to stand up and do it in a very sterile environment will get a bounce off it and take it into the Games," Atkinson says.
That being said, Swim Canada has endeavoured to create some atmosphere and energy in the building.
Before the pandemic, Alan Raphael, Swimming Canada's marketing director, planned to "put on the greatest and innovative trials we've ever done." With those plans shelved, Raphael has done his best to add some pizzazz to these trials, while adhering to the numerous health and safety protocols that are in place.
"The challenge, from a marketing standpoint, is how do we promote the event to our swimming community across the country?" Raphael said. "And, because there's no crowd, how do we support our athletes and give them the best opportunity to perform?"
Pumping up the noise
The pool deck is covered in signage that reminds athletes that a trip to the Olympic games is within their reach. The Olympic rings are everywhere. For the finals, swimmers are given elaborate introductions, including pumping music and highlights that play on a large video screen setup up at one end of the pool.
Raphael also knew that many other sporting events had successfully replicated crowd noise that athletes could feed off, even though the stands were empty.
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"We wanted to also make sure that we're not just running generic crowd noise, but we want to tailor it to the moment," he explains.
"We have a specific individual who will read the crowd, not so much the crowd in the house, but read the event itself. So, when someone overtakes an athlete, we pump up the noise and it could be a different cheer for that final push to the finish."
A special feeling
Fans and family have also been included. While on the deck, swimmers can hear pre-recorded messages of encouragement from fans. They can also see friends and family via zoom on the video board before and after the race. And then have an opportunity to connect with them after stepping out of the pool and share the moment of potentially qualifying for an Olympic Games.
"We can bring that family in so the athlete can have a quick interaction and they can all celebrate together as part of the post-race interview, again, trying to replicate what we would normally do in the facility on a virtual basis."
That's what sporting events conducted during a pandemic are all about: doing your best under the circumstances.
That's why there is a feeling among athletes and organizers that it's special these trials are even taking place at all.
"This year has obviously been a challenge," says Masse. "These trials are a great showcase of triumph and joy and hope. After the last year and half of COVID-19, it's really exciting for people to race.
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