By Jim Morris
Being a model of consistency has made Kylie Masse one of the world’s best backstroke swimmers.
The 23-year-old, who trains at the University of Toronto, is the first Canadian to win back-to-back FINA World Championships gold medals. Since her bronze medal performance at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Masse has won every major 100-metre backstroke race she has entered.
At the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Masse defended her 100-m title while adding bronze in the 200-m backstroke. She also helped the women’s 4×100-m medley relay finish third.
Her success on the international stage has resulted in Masse being named Swimming Canada’s Female Swimmer of the Year.
It’s the third consecutive year Masse has won the award. While proud of what she’s accomplished, Masse is also focused on the future.
“It’s always an honour,” said the LaSalle, Ont., native. “It’s important for me to be proud and be happy with my success in the past but also continue to look forward and continue to work hard and see what I can improve on.
“I think it’s only gets harder. I will continue to push myself day in and day out to continue to improve myself.”
Swimming Canada High Performance Director and National Coach John Atkinson, said Masse’s achievements put her among the world’s elite athletes.
“I would describe her as one the best athletes in the world,” he said. “To be a back-to-back world champion, and perform on the stage when it matters, is a testament to her abilities, commitment and dedication.”
In a sport where a fraction of a second can be the difference between elation and desolation, Masse continues to refine and enhance her stroke. A tiny tweak can have a big impact.
“All those little things are so specific, but they can also take a lot of time off or it can add a lot time if you’re doing it poorly,” she said. “There are a lot of small technical things that take a while to be consistent with and nail, so I just continue to practice those, and they become a habit.”
Talent is the foundation for any athlete, but the proper attitude is essential to help build success. Coach Linda Kiefer marvels at the positive mindset Masse brings to practice every day.
“I’m amazed by it sometimes,” said Kiefer. “I’ve seen too many athletes; they walk in and they’re not happy. She is a very happy-go-lucky person and that’s a compliment to her.
“I love that about her. It makes it a lot easier when you have an athlete that enjoys what they are doing.”
Atkinson credits Kiefer and Byron Macdonald, who also coaches Masse, for stoking her “ambition and desire to perform.”
“She’s a great racer,” said Atkinson. “You can improve technique, you can work on training, but champions have the inner ability to race when it counts. Kylie’s coaches have brought that out of her.”
Being the best at what she does makes Masse a target for other swimmers.
“That’s something I had to learn to deal with,” she said. “It’s something that doesn’t come easy. I try to really focus on myself and not think about what other people are thinking or what other people saying.
“I bring it back to just having confidence in my training, confidence in myself and my support team around me.”
Masse set the 100-m backstroke world record of 58.10 seconds at the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest. American Kathleen Baker lowered the record to 58 seconds in July of 2018. Another American, 17-year-old Regan Smith set the mark of 57.57 seconds swimming the backstroke leg in the 4×100-m medley relay at this year’s world championships.
“I’m happy for her and it’s great that backstroke is so strong right now and so deep,” said Masse. “It’s really motivating for me and definitely pushes me to continue and try to be better.”
Kiefer said regaining the world record is on the agenda, but winning gold at this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo is the main goal.
“In the Olympics, the time is not as important as getting your hand on the wall first,” said Kiefer. “You remember who wins gold, silver and bronze at any event at the Olympics, but you don’t remember how fast they swam.”
The 100-m backstroke remains Masse’s focus but her world championship bronze in the 200 shows the progress she’s made in that event.
“It’s come a long way,” she said. “I have a lot more that I want to improve on. It’s a different race than the 100-m, so it’s been a kind of trial and error. I’m happy with how it’s come along so far.”
The road to Tokyo will begin with the Olympic and Paralympic Trials in April. Having experienced the 2016 Olympics will benefit Masse as she prepares for this summer’s Games.
“I feel like I’m more mature with my swimming,” she said. “Just recognizing how to handle the nerves and excitement and all the attention that leads up to trials. I’ll still be nervous, and I think that’s good to be nervous.
“It’s still early. I’m just being in the present now, and really focusing on each practice and giving it my all.”