Rack your brain and think of a Canadian athlete who became a household name, just this year.
What’s the first name that comes to mind? Denis Shapovalov? Kylie Masse? Alphonso Davies?
All viable candidates for the unofficial award of Canada’s breakout athlete of 2017, but they’re all trumped by the performance and accomplishments of one athlete whose name has now become a buzzword surrounding the future of Canadian athletics : R.J. Barrett.
In July, Barrett led Team Canada’s U19 basketball team to a 79-60 victory over Italy to capture the gold medal at a FIBA World Cup event — this was the first time a Canadian basketball squad stood on the top of a world podium.
Prior to this, Canada basketball’s top global finish was a silver medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Yes, over 80 years ago.
The 17-year-old was named the MVP of the World Cup after earning 18 points and 12 rebounds in the championship game. Barrett averaged 21 points per game throughout the tournament, including a 38-point, 13-rebound, five-assist performance in the semifinal match against the U.S.
But it wasn’t just a weekend in Mexico that earned the Mississauga native the unofficial title of top breakout athlete, his other accomplishments throughout the year helped solidify the case.
In February, during NBA All-Star Weekend, Barrett earned the MVP honour at the Basketball Without Borders event in New Orleans which showcases the world’s top basketball talents.
In April, he was the youngest player, then 16-years-old, at the Nike Hoop Summit event — and fourth youngest in the showcase’s history — where he scored nine points and dishing out two assists in 20 minutes of action for the World Select team. The Nike Hoop Summit is one of the most elite events in the world; with 38 former World Select members active in the NBA as of December 2016. Alumni of the annual game include over 20 NBA All-Stars and four MVPs.
Of course this isn’t the first time we’ve ever heard Barrett’s name: in 2015 he led Team Canada’s U16 team to a silver medal at the FIBA America championships in Argentina, and earned second team all-star mentions in 2016 at the FIBA U17 World Championships.
But the icing on top of the cake this year for Barrett was his high-profile commitment to the Duke University Blue Devils — one of the best basketball programs in the world — for next season.
Runners-up for breakout athlete of the year
Denis Shapovalov started won the 2016 Wimbledon junior singles title and started turning heads. Then, at the 2017 Canadian Open, the 18-year-old from Richmond Hill beat Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal on his way to becoming the youngest semifinalist at the ATP World Tours Masters 1000. Shapovalov began the year ranked 250th in the Emirates ATP Rankings, but moved into the top 50 in October — and was the youngest player in the Top 100. The next month, he won two ATP World Tour Awards; Most Improved Player and the ATP Star of Tomorrow.
This might be a name that you heard once or twice before this year. Kylie Masse won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in the 100-metre backstroke event, and was the 2015/16 Swimmer of the Year while swimming at the University of Toronto. But the 21-year-old from LaSalle, Ontario, exploded for even more successes in 2017.
In July, Masse broke the world record in the 100-metre backstroke at the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest — which was last set eight years ago by Japan’s Shiho Sakai — and became the first female from Canada to ever win a world title in a swimming event.
In February 2016, 15-year-old Alphonso Davies became the youngest player to sign a United Soccer League contract, and in May when he scored his first goal for the Vancouver Whitecaps FC — where he still currently plays — he became the youngest goalscorer in USL history. He only scored the one goal that season, but it was an important one: clinching the team’s spot in the CONCACAF Champions League knock-out round.
The now 17-year-old accomplished a lot of firsts this year as well, when it came to his age: in June, he became the youngest player to suit-up for the Canada’s men’s national soccer team, the youngest player to score a goal for Canada’s men’s national soccer team, the youngest player to score in Gold Cup history, and the first player born in the 2000s to score at a top level international tournament. In addition to that, he was awarded the Golden Boot award for most goals scored during the Gold Cup tournament, as well as the Young Player Award.