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Change in scenery boosts morale for both High Performance Centres

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By Jim Morris

For the athletes from Vancouver it has been a welcome change of routine. For the Toronto swimmers seeing some old friends – even from a distance – has been great.

With their pool at the UBC Aquatics Centre undergoing maintenance, 14 swimmers from the High Performance Centre – Vancouver are training at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre. It’s the same pool used by the High Performance Centre – Ontario as both groups prepare for the Olympic Swimming Trials, Presented by Bell, to be held June 19-23.

Due to COVID-19 safety precautions, athletes from the two centres train separately and their only contact might be an exchange of greetings from a distance.

Even that variation from the norm is like sunshine breaking through the clouds on a dark day.

“Just having different people on deck is a nice change, as sad as that sounds,” said Finlay Knox of HPC-Ontario. “There’s a different atmosphere on deck, a different group of people, new faces.”

John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and national coach, said having the two centres in one building allows the Olympic team coaching staff a chance to evaluate some of the country’s top talent as they prepare for this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“It gives our coaching staff a good opportunity to look at them and see where they’re at right now,” he said.

Brad Dingey, head coach of the High Performance Centre – Vancouver, said continually practising without any breaks for competition due to COVID-19 had turned training into Groundhog Day.

“We were going to the pool, but it just seemed like the same day started over and over,” he said. “To switch our location and training venue, that’s been really good.

“This has definitely been refreshing.”

Training at the High Performance Centre – Ontario are swimmers like Olympic champion and quadruple medallist Penny Oleksiak; world championship gold medallist Margaret Mac Neil; Sydney Pickrem, winner of three bronze medals at the 2019 FINA World Championships;  Taylor Ruck, double Olympic medallist; two-time world championship bronze medallist Yuri Kisil, and Joshua Liendo, a world junior medallist and part of the 4×100-metre medley relay that finished 10th at the 2019 FINA World Championships.

Swimmers at the High Performance Centre – Vancouver include Olympic bronze medallist Brent Hayden who came out of retirement to compete at Tokyo; Markus Thormeyer, a world championship and Commonwealth Games medallist; Olympic and world championship medallist Emily Overholt.

With so much talent in one place a competition between swimmers from the two centres was held in May. It was the first national-level high performance swim meet held in Canada in 14 months.

It was the first chance Thormeyer had to race since competing at the International Swimming League competition in Budapest last November.

“I didn’t realize how much switching it up with the competition helped,” said Thormeyer. “It helped the whole racing mindset. You can do time trials and workouts, but it’s not the same as when there’s an official start time and referee.

“It allows you to measure yourself, see if your training can be applied to racing.”

Tom Johnson, the Vancouver centre’s performance coach, said the competition shook off some rust heading into the trials and helped evaluate the swimmers’ preparation heading into Tokyo.

“We’ve done time trials and different things, but it’s a very different scenario swimming by yourself,” he said. “Or you’re swimming against people that you train with every day versus getting in and racing some of your competitors.

“That was really a great benefit. It lets us know where they are in their preparation and lets them remember a little bit about what it’s like to compete against some pretty good swimmers. It’s going to help us a lot to get ready.”

The last several months has been a challenge as coaches across the country try to maintain training without burning out their swimmers physically and mentally.

“The nature of it is, you grind,” said Johnson. “You go for extended periods of time, and you can get diminishing returns. You need these checkpoints along the way to figure out where you are, what you’re trying to do, what you need to work on. What’s working and what isn’t working.”

Dingey said there haven’t been any radical changes to his swimmers’ training.

“We try not to change a whole bunch about what the training would be like,” he said. “We feel that’s the path they should be on and the things they should be doing.

“But the ideas they are staying in a different location, they maybe have a different roommate, they’re in a little different spot in terms of preparing some meals and those sorts of things. Just that aspect has certainly perked everyone up for sure.”

Pickrem said because of the pandemic she’s missed travelling and training with friends at the Vancouver centre.

“Normally we would be seeing these people throughout the year all the time,” she said. “To have them on deck is pretty fun.

“I wish we could train with them a little bit more, but it’s good we’re all getting ready for trials.”