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Cheetah or gazelle, Masse will swim her race the same way

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By Jim Morris

Having her world record broken won’t change how Kylie Masse approaches her next race.

“I think just keep doing what you’re doing,” said the 22-year-old from Windsor, Ont.

Masse swam a world-record time of 58.10 seconds in the 100-m backstroke at the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest to become Canada’s first ever female world champion.

That record stood until American Kathleen Baker lowered the mark to 58 seconds flat at the recent Team USA national championships. Baker finished second to Masse at last year’s worlds.

The two women will go head-to-head again Friday at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Tokyo.

Each pool session will be live streamed on CBC Sports, and Swimming Canada will also have live updates on Twitter throughout the meet. Pool competition runs through Sunday, with the open water marathon set for Tuesday.

The soft-spoken and polite Masse isn’t given to hyperbole or loud boasts. But make no mistake, her competitive fires have been stoked. Winning the race and having the world record back in her hands are her goals. She just doesn’t plan any major changes in her preparation.

“This is something I try not to think about all the time,” said Masse. “It’s out of my control what she did. I just need to keep working on what I can and doing the best I can to prepare myself.”

Coach Linda Kiefer said seeing the record broken isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “As a coach I was relieved,” said Kiefer. “It takes the pressure off Kylie’s shoulders. Kylie is now the hunter not the hunted. We knew Baker has been swimming fast. We’ve been watching her all year. We knew it was getting close.”

Masse learned about Baker’s result by checking on her computer. “I wasn’t expecting to see that,” said Masse, who trains with Kiefer and Byron Macdonald at the University of Toronto. “It was a great race and an incredible time. It puts me in a little bit different position now. It maybe takes the pressure off a little bit. I’m excited to race her again and continue to have that little battle going back and forth.”

Masse and Baker have some history. The American won the silver medal in the 100-m backstroke at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Masse finished tied for third with China’s Tuanhui Fu, just 0.01 of a second behind.

Masse said she has a “friendly rivalry” with Baker. “She’s a great competitor and she’s always very happy and fun on the pool deck. It’s nice to have a competitor like that,” Masse said.

Kiefer said Masse’s preparation and race strategy remain the same. “You can’t be reactive,” she said. “It’s the exact same approach. She swims her race. She’s going to go there and try to win. That’s our goal. I think it will be a good battle.”

At April’s Commonwealth Games Masse won gold and set Games records in both the 100-m and 200-m backstroke. She “shocked herself” with a time of 2:05.98 in the 200-m, just 0.01 off the Canadian record she set in her semifinal at last year’s worlds.

“It’s something I have been working on more and more,” she said. “Each time I swim it, it’s a learning opportunity. I have been able to see how I can play with the speed at the beginning and still come home fast. Each time I swim it, it’s better and better.”

Masse, who is also expected to swim the first leg of the 4×100-m medley relay, says the 100 back remains her focus.

“I like the speed of the 100,” she said. “Being able to utilize that speed in the 200 . . .  and come home strong is important. Training for both of them helps each other.”

The last year has been a whirlwind for Masse. The bronze medal in Rio was a turning point in her career, and she came home a star in her hometown of Windsor, which hosted the 2016 FINA World Championships (25m). She won two silver medals there and the city held a day in her honour, where she signed hundreds of autographs for local children. That set the stage for her leap to the top of the world in 2017.

“My confidence has grown,” she said. “It was all about confidence and just feeling I belong in the final, feeling I could be up there.”

Kiefer said the recognition and acclaim hasn’t changed Masse. “She’s a humble, wonderful girl,” said Kiefer. “She kind of expected things to change and it really hasn’t changed. She comes to race.”

Breaking the 58-second mark in the 100-m backstroke has been a target for Masse. It just has more significance now.

“I was working towards breaking that myself, so I know other people are out there trying to do the same thing,” she said. “It gives me extra motivation.”