Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse among six swimmers named early to Canadian Olympic team

·4 min read

Strange times in sport create unorthodox decisions.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupting training and decimating the competition calendar led Swimming Canada to invoke the unforeseen circumstances clause in its selection process and nominate a half-dozen swimmers to the 2021 Tokyo Games.

Penny Oleksiak and Kylie Masse were among six swimmers named early to Canada's Olympic team Friday.

Also, the Olympic and Paralympic swim trials in Toronto have been delayed from April to May.

Olympic champion Oleksiak of Toronto, world backstroke champion Masse of LaSalle, Ont., world butterfly champ Margaret Mac Neil of London, Ont., Taylor Ruck of Kelowna, B.C., Sydney Pickrem of Halifax and Markus Thormeyer of Newmarket, Ont., were pre-selected in events in which they excel.

"I'm super-grateful and thankful to be nominated," Masse said Friday on a media conference call.

"Moving forward it just allows us more flexibility with our training. It kind of takes that pressure off having had such broken-up training times and limited competition.

"It is an interesting way to have been nominated. Not normal, but this whole year hasn't been normal."

Led by 100-metre freestyle champion Oleksiak, the Canadian women's swim team won six of Canada's 22 medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

Swimmers were expected to lead Canada's medal charge again in 2020, but the global pandemic postponed Tokyo's Olympic Games to July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021.

It's uncertain if the global pandemic will ease enough for Tokyo's postponed Games to go ahead.

Masse was pre-selected in the 100 and 200-metre backstroke, Mac Neil in the 100-meter butterfly, Oleksiak in the 200-metre freestyle, Ruck in the 100-metre freestyle, Thormeyer in the 200-metre backstroke and Pickrem in three events: 200-metre breaststroke and individual medley, and 400-metre individual medley.

The move allows Canada's top swimmers to tailor their training to swim fast in Tokyo, Swimming Canada High-Performance Director John Atkinson said.

"We wanted to give the athletes that we've named today the certainty to target those events that they are world performers in," Atkinson said.

"What we feel this will give our key world performers is some certainly in a very uncertain world."

The swim trials scheduled for April 7-11 at Toronto's Pan Am Sports Centre were pushed to May 24-28, and an additional qualifying meet there June 21-23 gives swimmers more chances to be among the 22 to 26 on the Olympic team.

Delaying trials gives swimmers more preparation time and perhaps the chance to get some racing in before the event, Atkinson said.

"The shift will give our athletes coming to the trials event in May an extra seven weeks of training, which we feel is a very important thing at this time," he explained.

""We are keeping our options very flexible so we can do the best by our athletes, not knowing exactly how the pandemic and how competitions will align themselves over the next few months.

"May will be our trials, June will be our invitational qualifier and results from those competitions can be taken on board by the selection committee of Swimming Canada and further nominations will follow."

Up to two Canadian swimmers can qualify in each individual race.

"No event is closed off," Atkinson said. "It's still open for everyone to go at it in May and in June and the selection committee will take on board all circumstances when we come to that final nomination."

Three-time Paralympic champion Aurelie Rivard of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., Tess Routliffe of Caledon, Ont., Katarina Roxon of Kippen, N.L., Saskatoon's Shelby Newkirk, Toronto's Aly Van Wyck-Smart, Quebec City's Nicolas-Guy Turbide, James Leroux of Repentigny, Que., and Alec Elliot of Kitchener, Ont., have already met time standards to be nominated to Canada's Paralympic swim team.

The remaining 11 berths — three male, eight female — are expected to be filled at trials in May. Canada won eight swimming medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games, including four gold.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press