By Jim Morris
In a year of changes and challenges Kylie Masse has managed to remain consistent in her focus.
The two-time 100-metre backstroke world champion rode a rollercoaster of emotions as COVID-19 closed swimming pools and cancelled competitions. The pandemic even forced the Olympic bronze medallist to switch coaches so she could continue training.
“If anything, this whole pandemic has taught me to just be in the present moment and to focus on myself and what I can control,” said the 25-year-old from LaSalle, Ont.
“We’ve all had to overcome obstacles. I think it’s been really important for me to keep things in perspective and just take each day as it comes, just try to improve on the day prior. That’s how I’ve been keeping my mental health in check.”
When Masse swam a blazing time of 57.70 seconds to break her own Canadian 100-m backstroke record on the opening day of the Olympic Swimming Trials, presented by Bell, it appeared she was sending a message to the other women she will face later this month at the Tokyo Olympics.
Masse said the message was more to herself.
“I don’t know how other people perceived that,” Masse said. “At the end of the day, I can’t really think about what they think because it doesn’t matter.
“I just wanted to do that for me. I know how hard I’ve been training, and I know what I’ve been doing in training. I’m really pleased to have done that time for myself.”
Being provisionally nominated by Swimming Canada for the Olympic team removed any pressure heading into the trials but Masse still felt some nerves.
“It gave me a bit more flexibility with my training,” she said. “Having not raced for so long and having such a crazy year and so many challenges, I was really eager to get up and see what I could do. I’ve been kind of striving to get under 58 seconds for a long time now.”
Masse heads to Tokyo as one of just three women to swim under 58 seconds in the 100-m back.
Kaylee McKeown set a world record of 57.45 seconds at the Australian Olympic trials in early June. That broke the old record of 57.57 set by American Regan Smith during a relay leadoff at the 2019 FINA World Championships. Smith swam 58.35 to win the U.S. Olympic Trials, after posting a time of 57.92 in her semifinal.”
Reclaiming the world record she once held is at the back of Masse’s mind. She set the mark of 58.10 seconds at the 2017 world championships.
“It’s hard not to think about it,” said Masse.
“I don’t want to fixate on times. At the end of the day, it’s who can get their hand on the wall first.
“I do have goals for times in my head and things I want to achieve but focusing too much on the time can be detrimental sometimes.”
She also won the 200-m backstroke on the final day of the trials.
Masse has spent most of her career being coached by Linda Kiefer and Bryon MacDonald at the University of Toronto. When the U of T pool was closed due to COVID, she made the decision to train with Ben Titley at the High Performance Centre – Ontario.
Masse had spent some time training at the Ontario centre before. Making the move permanent wasn’t a total adjustment, just another curve in a long and twisting road.
“It was definitely a little bit scary because that’s not something you really want to do coming into an Olympic year,” she said. “I had been with Byron and Linda for six years. To do a complete change of training program is a lot.
“Having said that, change is also great. It was great to get a new perspective. Every coach has their own way of working with an athlete. Just mixing it up a little bit was great.”
Masse remains close with Kiefer and MacDonald. Kiefer is one of the coaches on Swimming Canada’s staff at the Olympics.
The Tokyo Games are going to be very different from Rio. There will be strict safety protocols in place to deal with COVID. Friends and family won’t be able to attend and there will be few, if any, fans attending events.
Canada’s Olympic trials were held under much the same restrictions. Masse believes that could give Canadian swimmers an edge in Tokyo.
“In Canada, we’ve been in lockdown for so long, we’ve had such heavy restrictions that people are accustomed to the protocols and mask wearing,” she said.
“We are going to be more ready for it, used to it, compared to maybe some other countries.”
Masse carries both promise and expectations into Tokyo. She’s a proven winner on the international stage. Her victory in 2017 made her Canada’s first female FINA world champion in swimming. She’s also the first Canadian swimmer to defend a world title and her five world championship medals ties her with Penny Oleksiak for most all-time among Canadian women.
Working your way to the top of any sport is difficult. Staying at the top is even harder, said Masse.
“I think climbing is exciting,” she said. “I was kind of the underdog (in Rio) and I didn’t really have a lot of pressure. I just loved racing and I would get up and race.
“Once you’re at the top you just have more experience with pressure and more expectations. Those are things that you have to figure out yourself and everyone deals with that individually and differently. Also, the sport is always getting faster and there’s always someone right on your toes.”