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Young swimmers hope to use upcoming trials to step onto Olympic stage

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By Jim Morris

A wave of young actors hope to use this month’s Olympic Swimming Trials, Presented by Bell, as a stepping stone onto the world’s biggest stage.

Teenagers like Summer McIntosh, Joshua Liendo, Gabe Mastromatteo, Jade Hannah, Emma O’Croinin, and Cole Pratt, and 20-year-olds Finlay Knox and Kayla Sanchez are among those battling for berths on Swimming Canada’s team that will compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Liendo, 18, said he has respect for everyone at the meet, which will be held June 19-23 at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, but won’t be intimidated by veterans like Brent Hayden, Yuri Kisil and Markus Thormeyer, who have competed at previous Olympics.

“Finlay and I both have this mentality, we don’t really care how much older people are, we’re always trying to win,” said Liendo.

“We definitely want to challenge older guys. We want to put pressure on them and win our races.”

Knox, his High Performance Centre – Ontario teammate, wants to help propel the Canadian men’s team into the same limelight as the women.

“Canadian men’s swimming has started to become a lot faster,” he said. “It doesn’t matter their name or their age. When we’re on the blocks, and we’re competing against them, it’s whoever can push out the longest and get to the wall first.

“We’re not intimidated or scared by them. We want to push ourselves to the next level.”

The 14-year-old McIntosh dropped jaws last month when she swam the 400-metre freestyle in four minutes, 5.13 seconds, trimming 10 seconds off her own personal best time and slicing eight seconds off the previous National Age Group Record held by Taylor Ruck.

“I trusted my training and I just kind of went for it,” said McIntosh, who also trains under Head Coach Ben Titley at HPC-Ontario. “I was very happy with my time, but I wasn’t as much surprised because, day in and day out, hard work makes it happen.”

McIntosh has already been compared to American swimmer Katie Ledecky, something she takes in stride.

“Katie Ledecky is a complete, absolute legend,” she said. “I feel like everyone is their own person. Everyone is on their own success trajectory.

“But I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Knox recently set a Canadian record time of 1:58.88 in the 200-m individual medley at a time trial event in Toronto. That beat the previous record of 1:59.19 that Keith Beavers set at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

In 2019, Liendo won a silver medal in the 100-m freestyle at the FINA World Junior Championships. He also was part of the 4×100-m medley relay that finished 10th at the senior FINA World Championships and was named Swimming Canada’s Male Junior Swimmer of the Year.

Liendo believes having the Tokyo Olympics delayed a year will benefit him.

“That extra year helped me get better,” he said. “I would have been a little young last year. I think (it’s been) another year for me to get faster.”

Liendo teamed with Pratt, Mastromatteo, Knox and Tyler Wall for bronze in the men’s medley relay at world juniors. Pratt is among those putting up impressive times in limited competition opportunities, setting personal bests in the 50-m, 100-m and 200-m backstroke at a recent Swim Alberta event.

Mastromatteo, who moved from Kenora, Ont., to swim at the University of Toronto, also contributed to mixed medley relay bronze and took silver in the men’s 50-m breaststroke. Halifax native Jade Hannah was also part of that mixed medley relay, won the women’s 100-m and 200-m backstroke, and added a women’s medley relay bronze for a total of four world junior medals. She joined HPC-Ontario last year after the closure of HPC-Victoria.

O’Croinin, a product of Edmonton’s Keyano Swim Club who trains with HPC-Vancouver, was just 15 when she qualified for Canada’s team at the 2019 FINA World Championships. She was part of the women’s 4×200-m freestyle team that captured bronze.

At the world juniors that same year she captured silver in the 400-m freestyle and bronze in the 200-m freestyle. She was named Swimming Canada’s Female Junior Swimmer of the Year.

McIntosh, Liendo, Knox and Sanchez, who won two bronze relay medals at the 2019 world championships, all train at the High Performance Centre – Ontario under head coach Ben Titley.

Kisil, 25, said being in the pool with swimmers like Liendo and Knox makes him better.

“They push me every day in practice,” he said. “I know when it comes to the meet, they’re going to push me.

“It’s really promising and kind of gives you hope that Canadian men’s swimming is going to get to the next level and becomes a real threat in the world.”

Ken McKinnon, Swimming Canada’s national development coach, said Swimming Canada has invested time and funding to identify and develop junior talent. That allows them to make the transition from elite junior events to senior competitions.

“They’re getting a lot of confidence,” said McKinnon. “They get to see the arena and what it looks like when they step onto the national team.

“The depth is really huge. Upwards pressure from the younger kids has really been very good for us in the last five-year period.”

John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and national coach, said developing young talent is the lifeblood of any sports organization.

“Any national program should be about identifying talented young athletes, then looking at how you can assist them and the coaches to develop,” he said.

Atkinson pointed to the Rio 2016 Olympics where teenagers Penny Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck, and 20-year-old Kylie Masse all climbed on the podium. Those three are now among the six veterans who have been provisionally nominated to the Toky 2020 team.

“Any national team has to have that succession planning and production line where athletes can break through,” he said. “It’s always exciting to see that when it happens.

“It also exciting when you can see those young athletes develop four or five years later as more older, experienced athletes on the team.”