By Jim Morris
His youth and potential are already making people in the swim community take notice of Josh Liendo.
The 18-year-old from Markham, Ont., earned a spot on the Swimming Canada team heading to this month’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by recording three personal best times and setting a Canadian record of 51.72 seconds in the 100-metre butterfly at the Olympic Swimming Trials, Presented by Bell.
As the only Black swimmer on the team, Liendo hopes youth from different ethnic groups see him as a role model and that encourages them to follow his lead and become involved in competitive swimming.
“I understand I have a chip on my shoulder, that I’m a role model,” said Liendo, who trains at the High Performance Centre – Ontario. “I put that on myself. It makes me swim faster.
“I think it’s important you get more kids coming into the sport. Thinking it’s something you can’t do, you should never have that in your head. You can do whatever you want.”
Liendo, who was a member of the men’s 4×100-m medley relay that finished 10th at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, knows his colour makes him stand out in the pool.
“It’s very noticeable,” he said. “I was the only black guy on the world championship team.
“I’ve never felt any discrimination or anything like that. I’ve always been included.”
Kayla Sanchez knows what it feels like being different in the pool. Her parents are Filipino and “weren’t really athletic.
“Me being a swimmer is kind of a surprise,” said the 20-year-old, who also trains under Head Coach Ben Titley at the Ontario centre.
Growing up in Scarborough, Ont., Sanchez said she never experienced any discrimination in the sport.
“As I got older, I started to realize I was different and there were different cultures around,” she said. “It never really bothered me, but I was proud to represent Filipinos in the pool.”
Liendo was born in Toronto then lived in Trinidad until he returned to Canada as a nine-year-old. His mother Claudette wanted him to be a gymnast while his father thought he should play baseball.
One of Liendo’s role models was former NBA star Allen Iverson.
“I see how different he was,” said Liendo. “He embraced being different. He never shied away from being different. I’ve always looked up to him.”
The first black swimmer to win an Olympic medal was Enith Brigitha of the Netherlands who won two bronze medals at the Montreal 1976 Olympics. Anthony Nesty of the South American country of Suriname was the first Black man to win a medal with a gold in the 100-metre butterfly event in 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Calgary native Debbie Armstead was the first Black Canadian swimmer to qualify for the Olympic Games. She was a member of the 1980 team that didn’t compete in Moscow because of the Games boycott. She did swim for Canada at the 1982 FINA World Championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador and went on to a 25-year coaching career.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, American Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win an individual Olympic swimming gold medal when she tied Canada’s Penny Oleksiak in the 100-m freestyle.
John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and national coach, welcomes diversity on the national team.
“Look at the team we have here,” he said. “It’s a diverse team, and sport is a great vehicle for inclusion.”
The role of recruiting swimmers and developing talent usually falls to clubs across Canada. Atkinson said it’s important governments spend the money to build swimming pools, not only to help develop future athletes but to teach people how to swim.
The global pandemic that forced a one-year delay in the Tokyo Games has also forced some pools to close across the country.
“Those clubs in swimming only exist where there are pools,” said Atkinson. “Right now, there are a lot of pools that are not reopening.
“If we want to be better, and we do want to be better at inclusion across all sections of Canada, we have to open the pools we’ve got then look at where the new the new pools are going to be built and encourage clubs, lifestyle, health, fitness and safety.”
Sanchez was a member of the women’s 4×100-m and 4×200-m freestyle teams that captured bronze and broke the Canadian records at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships.
She earned a ticket to her first Olympics by winning the 50-m freestyle at the trials in 24.68 seconds and finished second in the 100-m free.
Sanchez also sees herself as a role model to attract more minorities to swimming.
“That’s my goal,” she said. “I get a lot of messages of support, saying I’m an inspiration to Filipinos. I didn’t see it at first but I’m glad that I am.
“I hope I keep making Filipinos and other Asian races proud.”