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Swimmers attending first Olympic Games balance potential with expectations

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By Jim Morris

Katrina Bellio’s Olympic inspiration hangs in her closest.

In November of 2018, during Etobicoke Swimming’s annual banquet, retired Olympic bronze medallist Brittany MacLean gave Bellio one of her club swim bags for a gift. Inside was a note MacLean wrote to Bellio, two of her Swimming Canada suits and the racing suit MacLean wore in the finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“I still have those suits hanging in my closet,” said the 16-year-old from Mississauga, Ont. “It just meant so much to me to know that even at such a young age she believed in me and believed in the future I could do something really good with swimming.”

Bellio swam a personal best time of 16 minutes, 29.67 seconds to win the 1,500-metre freestyle at last month’s Olympic Swimming Trials, Presented by Bell. She is one of 16 Swimming Canada athletes competing in their first Olympics at the Tokyo Games later this month.

Many of the first-timers have competed at a FINA World Championships, World Junior Championships or Pan Pacific Championships. Margaret Mac Neil, 21, goes into her first Olympics as the defending world champion in the 100-m butterfly, which puts a target on her back.

“Every time I kind of think about the pressure and kind of get overwhelmed by it, I remind myself there are other world champions in the same boat,” said Mac Neil, who trains with Ben Titley at the High Performance Centre – Ontario.

Josh Liendo, 18, and Finlay Knox, 20, head to Tokyo after setting Canadian records at the trials. The Olympics will be 14-year-old Summer McIntosh’s first international competition. All three train at HPC-Ontario.

“They are the future of swimming,” said Ryan Mallette, associate head coach at HPC-Ontario. “They are our future veterans.”

Experiencing the bright lights of the Olympics for the first time has caused some young athletes to blink. To help ease Olympic nerves Swimming Canada has tried to make the Games like any other meet.

“With every team, whether it be a junior team or whether it be the senior team, we do a lot of the things the same,” said John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and national coach.

Swimmers who attended the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, Korea, or the world juniors in Budapest followed the same team rules and protocols that will be in place in Tokyo.

“The experience is one that we create within the team of how to cope with the team environment and minimize any distractions for whatever competition you are at,” said Atkinson.

Already delayed a year due to the global pandemic, COVID-19 still casts a shadow over Tokyo. Family and friends will not be able to attend. There will be few if any fans in the stands.

Olympic veterans will notice the change more than first-timers.

“You accept the environment that you’re in as the norm, because you have nothing else to compare it to,” said Atkinson.

Liendo, Knox and Cole Pratt are part of the wave of young swimmers hoping to put the Canadian men’s team back on the podium.

Liendo swam a Canadian record 51.72 seconds in the 100-m fly on the opening day of trials. He would also qualify by winning the 100-m freestyle in 48.13 seconds and placing second in the 50-m freestyle in 21.90 seconds.

“There are a lot of guys coming up,” said Liendo, of Markham, Ont., who trains at the Ontario centre.  “We’re not Next Gen anymore. We’re here.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys from other countries who are 18 make Olympic teams. It got me fired up. I wanted to be there too.”

Knox won the 200-m individual medley at Trials in a Canadian record 1:58.07. It was the second time in less than a month he had broken the record.

“Just getting faster means a lot,” said the Okotoks, Alta., native.  “It means I’m on the right path.”

Pratt, who punched his Olympic ticket by finishing second in the 100-m backstroke in 53.54 seconds, said the young men are marking their mark on the team.

“A couple of years ago we were getting treated like the young kids on the team,” said the 18-year-old from Calgary who trains at the Cascade Club with Dave Johnson.

I just want to show people that we’re not 16-year-old boys anymore.

We’re here to do business.

Pratt comes from an athletic background.

His sister Halle will also compete in Tokyo as a member of the artistic swim team. His father Jasen was a national team swimmer, former coach, and announces at swim meets.  His uncle Nolan is a former NHL player who won Stanley Cups with Colorado and Tampa Bay and is now an assistant coach with the Avalanche.

A handful of Olympic rookies – including Ruslan Gaziev, Gabe Mastromatteo, Bailey Andison, Tessa Cieplucha and Mary-Sophie Harvey – are university-aged swimmers who have been on one or more national teams. Many overcame adversity to achieve their Olympic dream.

Kelsey Wog flirted with the idea of quitting after just missing qualifying for the 2016 Games.

“It was definitely up and down and fluctuated,” said the 22-year-old who trains with coach Vlastimil Cerny at the University of Manitoba.

“I just stayed focused on my goals and I knew I wanted to keep going because I loved it.”

Kayla Sanchez, who helped Canada capture two relay bronze medals at the 2019 world championships, underwent shoulder surgery last September.

“I’ve improved in many ways,” said the 20-year-old from Toronto. “I’m always learning, always adapting.”

Atkinson said the lessons learned in Tokyo will benefit the young swimmers in future Olympics. He wants to see them improve on the times they did at the trials but won’t add any extra pressure by predicting who might reach a final or climb on the podium.

“There’s always a balance between expectations and hype around talented young people,” he said. “What we talk about on all our national teams is . . . always just focus on what you can do and what you can control. You can’t control how anybody else swims.

“If they go there and they improve they may have two or three more Games ahead of them. We know from previous experience success can come in a first Games, but I would never put that sort of expectation on any of the first-time Olympians.”