World champion backstroker Kylie Masse racing again after pandemic layoff

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World champion backstroker Kylie Masse dubbed her first races in over seven months "interesting."

The 24-year-old from LaSalle, Ont., is competing for the Toronto Titans in Budapest, Hungary, in International Swimming League matches.

Toronto's second round of matches are Sunday and Monday at Duna Arena against the Aqua Centurions, Energy Standard and New York Breakers.

Masse is among 300 international swimmers "bubbled" in Budapest competing for 10 pro teams. 

The ISL condensed its race schedule in a hub city in its second season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Masse, a two-time world champion in 100-metre backstroke, could race in up to six matches in five weeks should the Titans be among the final four teams.

She says she's getting crucial racing experience in a season currently devoid of any because of the pandemic.

"Racing is such a huge part of our training," Masse told The Canadian Press from Budapest. "You don't don't want to go a long time without racing."

She was days away from competing in Canada's Olympic trials in April when the event was called off due to both the pandemic and the postponement of Tokyo's Olympic Games to 2021.

The pandemic closed pools. Canada's swim team was out of the water 122 days, which was the most among the world's top 10 swim countries, before a gradual return to pool training in late June.

"Everybody that I've talked to has said that they were not out of the water nearly as long as we were, which is room for concern," Titans coach Byron MacDonald said.

Canada's trials are scheduled for April, 2021. 

Masse chose to compete in the ISL because she'd rather have race experience than not before that. 

Olympic gold medallist Penny Oleksiak opted to remain in Canada.

"Definitely personal preference," Masse said. "There were times when I definitely hemmed and hawed and there's so much uncertainty in the world right now. 

"Ultimately, it came down to this is really the only thing on the agenda. Nothing is set up for the next little while, so we don't really know the next opportunity we are going to have to race and get this kind of stimulus again."

ISL races are in a 25-metre pool instead of an Olympic 50-metre pool.

Masse felt rusty in her 50-metre and 200-metre backstroke, and her 100 in a medley relay on Day 1 of in the Titans' first match.

She won her signature race on Day 2, however. Masse's time of 56.38 seconds in the 100 backstroke would put her in the final of the most recent short-course championship.

"I was really pleased with my time and obviously the win to get points for my team was my main priority," Masse said. 

Ten Canadians plus swimmers from the United States, Sweden, Russia and Britain compete for the Titans.

Canadian Olympians Kierra Smith (LA Current), Markus Thormeyer (Tokyo Frog Kings) and Sydney Pickrem (London Roar) are also in Budapest.

Masse's Titans teammate Brent Hayden has come out of retirement after winning an Olympic bronze medal in the 100-metre freestyle in 2012.

He says the ISL is knocking the race rust off him.

"Definitely as a preparation strategy, there's something in competition that you cannot replicate in training and that's performing under the pressure of competition, having fast swimmers flanking you on your right and left rather than your teammates that you train with and see every single day," said the 37-year-old from Maple Ridge, B.C.

Swimming Canada gave national-team swimmers its blessing to compete in Budapest with cautions to do what's necessary to avoid the virus, and also to take care of their bodies in a tight racing schedule after months of zero international competition.

ISL athletes are housed on Budapest's Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube River. The teams are transported by bus to the pool for competition and training.

Hayden says he's been tested for the virus five times in the last two weeks.

"I think it's totally safe here," Hayden said. "We've got pretty strict rules. We're not allowed to go into the city to explore. Most of our time is just spent inside the hotel. 

"The great thing about being here is there's no outside distractions. When we're not swimming, we're still thinking about the things that we need to do to take care of our bodies in order to swim fast."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press