News & Articles

Past experience a benefit for older, wiser returning Olympic swimmers

Features –

By Jim Morris

Canadian swimmers who have attended at least one Olympic Games say they head to this month’s Tokyo Games with a better understanding of how to prepare, what to expect and how to cope with any challenges

“I’m older, more mature,” said Markus Thormeyer, 23, who swam the third leg in the 4×100-metre freestyle relay that finished seventh at the Rio 2016 Olympics. “I know more about myself, what I want and need as an athlete.

“I feel like going into Rio I was like a baby, fresh out of high school.”

The 26-member Swimming Canada team heading to Tokyo has 10 swimmers with previous Olympic experience.

Brent Hayden, who ended seven years of retirement in October of 2019, qualified for his fourth Games when he won the 50-metre freestyle at last month’s Olympic Swimming Trials, presented by Bell. At 37, he is the oldest Canadian swimmer to qualify for an Olympics.

“I knew I had it in me to be able to do it,” said the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist who trains with Thormeyer under Performance Coach Tom Johnson at the High Performance Centre – Vancouver. “I didn’t know if I was actually going to be able to do it.”

Tokyo will be Katerine Savard’s third Olympics. Savard surprised herself at the trials when she qualified by finishing second in the 100-m butterfly in 57.86 seconds. That’s the same event the butterfly specialist failed to qualify in for the Rio Games.

“I’m really surprised but in a good way,” said the 28-year-old who trains at CAMO in Montreal with coach Claude St-Jean. “I haven’t really raced the 100 fly since 2016. I was not expecting that.

“I had a dream to go the Olympics for a third time.”

Savard was part of the 4×200-m freestyle relay that won a bronze medal and broke the Canadian record in Rio, and will likely be a relay contributor again in Tokyo. She took a five-month break from swimming in 2018 but decided to pursue another Olympics. In 2019 she played the title role in the movie “Nadia, Butterfly,” which was named an official Cannes 2020 selection.

In the years since Rio, Savard has become more poised and confident in herself.

“Emotionally I’m way more mature,” she said. “I can control my emotions better. I’m less nervous before my race.

“It helps me to stay focused. I just try to keep calm and train fast to get better.”

Swimmers hoping to add to their medal collection from Rio include Penny Oleksiak, who was just 16 when she won four medals – including the 100-m freestyle gold – in 2016; Kylie Masse, a bronze medallist in the 100-m backstroke and two-time world champion; and Taylor Ruck, who won bronze in both the 4×100-m and 4×200-m freestyle relays.

Swimmers heading to their second Games who have won FINA World Championship medals include Yuri Kisil, Javier Acevedo, Sydney Pickrem and Kierra Smith.

John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and national coach, said every Games presents specific challenges. The Tokyo Olympics will be especially different because of the restrictions and protocols in place to deal with COVID-19.

Athletes with previous Games experience have learned to focus on what they can control.

“The main thing I would say from going to multiple Games is there are always issues, there’s always the potential for distraction,” he said.

“They (veteran swimmers) are focused on performing and what they need to do in order to perform to the best they can and cope in the environment.”

Ben Titley, head coach at the High Performance Centre – Ontario, said swimmers going to their second Games understand it’s just another competition against people they have been racing against for years.

“There’s the word ‘Olympics’ in front of it, but you are actually at the swimming pool, it’s the same people they have raced all the time,” he said. “It’s the same starting blocks, the same 50-metre lane. Nothing changes.”

Since Rio, Thormeyer has developed into the country’s top male backstroker. He was pre-selected for Tokyo in the 200-m back and won the 100-m at the trials in 53.40 seconds.

“I haven’t shown all my cards,” said Thormeyer, who finished eighth in the 200-m back at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships. “There are tricks up my sleeve other people don’t know about.

“There is more in the tank.”

Thormeyer competed in just one event in Rio, which happened on the second day. He will have a full slate of events this year with the two backstrokes and relays.

“He’s going to be fully immersed in the Olympic Games, he’s not going to be just one and done,” said Johnson, his coach at the Vancouver centre.

“He looks like he’s coming to life now. We’re hoping that’s going to translate into the kind of performance he needs to be a player . . . and not just the player in one spot but across the nine days of the meet.”

Ruck feels a calm that was lacking prior to Rio.

“That experience from the past Olympics has calmed my nerves,” said the 21-year-old who trains at the Ontario centre. “That’s kind of one of the biggest obstacles newcomers have to face.”

Pickrem reached the final of the 200-m individual medley in Rio, where she finished sixth, and was 12th in the 400-m IM.

“When I was in Rio I was a child,” said the 24-year-old who trains at the Ontario centre. “I did not know what I was doing… I didn’t really enjoy the Olympic journey.

“Going into my second Olympics, I made a promise to enjoy it. I’m going into it with a lot stronger head and getting ready to have some good races. Not many people can say they are a two-time Olympian. I need to take that in and really enjoy the process going into Tokyo.”