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Youth Relay Camp helping ‘kick-start the next generation’

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By Nathan Sager

The work toward continued improvement for Canada’s relay teams beyond the 2016 Olympic Games is already well underway.

The Canadian Olympic & Para-swimming Trials last month at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre were triumphal for Swimming Canada’s relay initiatives. Each 4×100 -metre freestyle relay team met the standard for Rio de Janeiro. The women’s 4×200 free and medley relays are also qualified and the men’s medley relay might yet get a spot.

That newfound success stems back to bringing together freestylers in May for training camps focused on relay. Now it’s being extended to youth swimmers, who are taking part in a training camp in Bermuda prior to competing in the Bermuda Amateur Swimming Association National Long Course Championships. The emphasis includes working the art of relay takeover starts into the typically intense mid-season training.

“We’re focusing on the next crew – get ahead of the quadrennial by a few months and kick-start the next generation,” national development coach Ken McKinnon says. “Actually, we’re going down two generations, with a youth squad, just below the age of junior. We’re going to run almost the same type of camp that we have at the senior level – same messaging. Just from more of a basic perspective like teaching some of the elements that we tend to see as a weakness when they first come in to the junior international teams. ”

McKinnon, men’s coach Tina Hoeben and women’s coach Chris Stone are gathering 12 swimmers chosen from a selection criteria that incorporates both performance and potential. The group is diverse, encompassing five provinces. The female contingent consists of Jessica Luo (Pacific Coast Swimming), Jade Hannah (Halifax Trojans), Faith Knelson (Ladysmith Chemainus), Octavia Lau (Hyack Swim Club), Janelle Gursoy and Kayla Sanchez (Markham Aquatic Club). Ethan Fazekas (Windsor Aquatic Club), Mackenzie Flowers (Edmonton Keyano), Ruslan Gaziev (Etobicoke Swimming), Tai Long Singh (ITP – Montreal), Riley Wall (Kisu Swim Club) and Joshua Young (Red Deer Catalina).

The group is already on site preparing for the meet, which runs Thursday through Sunday.

“We’re going to try to work on that now,” McKinnon says. “Have the kids start talking about the relays and the Junior Pan Pacific Championships and the junior worlds and taking more ownership. Just sort of starting the same thing again. It’s overlapping the next two [2020 and ’24 Olympic] quadrennials.”

At a time when every sport is trying to find ways to quantify how strong group dynamics and chemistry are formed, Swimming Canada has been carrying out a long -term plan to get swimmers to embrace a relay mindset. McKinnon notes that was not the case historically. Launching a male relay initiative in 2014, and adding a female relay initiative last year is paying dividends.

“We’ve gained some momentum,” McKinnon says. “I thought [the 2015 FINA World Championships in] Kazan went really well. A key factor in why it is working is, it seemed the swimmers’ response to it is really positive. They’re taking a partnership role in having good relays more than they used to. The coaches cannot do that on their own. In the past, we tended to do that in the staging camps, just in the last 10 days. Our placing maybe showed that. There’s been a buy-in.”

At the senior level, the swimmers are the same age as some of the young players in professional hockey,” McKinnon adds. “You take a 19-year-old hockey player, they’re treated like adults. We haven’t always taken that step.”

Canada is also sending a five-swimmer team to compete on the Mare Nostrum Tour in the first two weeks of June. The crew includes a Rio-bound trio of breaststroker Kierra Smith, and freestylers Taylor Ruck (who turns 16 years old this month) and Evan Van Moerkerke, a University of Guelph product who is part of the men’s 4×100 relay. Rebecca Smith of Red Deer, Alta., and Alexia Zevnik of Montreal will also get a good exposure to strong competition.

“For Mare Nostrum we have two target groups – kids have just narrowly missed the Olympic team but are still improving,” McKinnon says. “We want to give them a reason to get back into the pool and keep training and get into an international event quickly. The other target group are those who on the Olympic team can benefit from racing six times in nine days while in training.”

The Mare Nostrum group will compete in Monaco on June 4-5, at the Canet en Roussillon meet on June 8-9 and in Barcelona on June 11-12