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Celebrating Black History Month: Get to know Joshua Liendo

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In honour of Black History Month, Swimming Canada is taking the time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black Canadian swimmers and coaches in our community. Joshua Liendo made his first senior national team in 2019, made his Olympic debut last summer at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and recently took a major leap at the 2021 FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Abu Dhabi in December. Liendo earned bronze medals in the 50-m and 100-m freestyle and helped Canada to gold in the mixed 4×50-m freestyle relay. We caught up with the Scarborough, Ont., native, who spent part of his childhood growing up in Trinidad before returning to Canada and developing into one of the country’s best swimmers.

other kids didn’t want to put their head in the water but I was just like, ‘Let’s do this.’

How did you get started in swimming?

I grew up in the Caribbean and basically for preschool they just send kids to learn how to swim. You live on an island, that’s how it started. I went in the water and wasn’t afraid of the water and was having fun. One of the coaches there thought my parents should put me in swimming. He said ‘He seems comfortable.’ I guess other kids didn’t want to put their head in the water but I was just like, ‘Let’s do this.’ I took lessons and from there I started growing and learning about the sport.

What other activities have you been involved in?

I’ve always been swimming but music kind of came in. I started lessons, when I was maybe 13 or 14, that was just for guitar. And in school I learned to play the violin. From the violin I learned to play the cello. Then just because I was tall in middle school they got me to play the bass because everybody else was too short. I think I would have been the best at the cello because I liked cello the best but they asked me to play the bass. I have a bass guitar and an acoustic guitar. Recently I’ve been playing more often. When I have nothing to do when I’m bored, I just kind of strum away and play on it a few times a week.

What about other sports?

I like playing football, it’s my favourite sport basically. I watch a little bit of baseball, that’s more like my dad’s thing but I watch some baseball. I never really played organized football but I played a little bit of flag in high school, and I played a little bit of basketball but I couldn’t be on the team because of swimming. At one of my old schools I still talk to the basketball coach, it’s funny, but when I started getting better at swimming in high school, at that point I focused on swimming and it took the forefront.

Was there a moment you realized you could really go far in swimming?

 When I was 14, my first Canadian age group record, in the 100 fly (54.76 to win gold at the 2017 Canadian Junior Championships in Toronto). That’s when I started kind of thinking about trying to make a world championships and stuff like that.

What goals do you have for yourself in the sport?

I definitely have goals in my head. Obviously I always want to win. I always want to get gold. That’s the kind of person I am, I have that mentality always. I feel like if you don’t have that mentality of winning or being the best, you’re kind of wasting your time. Everyone does it for different things, but for me in my head, I want to be the best I can be.

You were part of a gold medal at the recent world short-course championships, has that sunk in yet?

I’m thinking about it right now, I wasn’t expecting a gold medal going into it. To look at the board and see gold medal, world champion, looking back on that it was a crazy moment being on top of that board and hearing that anthem. It definitely made me want more. I did it short course, now I want to be able to do it long course. At Commonwealths (this summer in Birmingham, England) I want to show with no doubt in anyone’s minds I made it and did my thing.

You are the first Black Canadian swimmer to win an individual medal at a major international championships or Games, as well as the first to win a gold medal. What does that mean to you?

It obviously shows that there’s not a lot of diversity in our sport. Everybody knows that but it’s good to see when you’re there and other Black guys come up and say ‘Good job’ or ‘You’re the man.’ It’s a good feeling to set an example. I watched the (Ontario Junior International) competition back home (in Dec. 2021) and you’re seeing more diversity and more colour in our sport and that’s something that is good. I hope I can be an example and show that we can do this.

Have you had any bad experiences because of the way you look?

One of the coaches I was (in Abu Dhabi) with, Greg (Arkhurst), he’s a Black coach and I was having a talk with him. It was good to have him there and we talked about how you don’t even notice it in terms of the way we’ve seen in the U.S. Here’s it’s not in your face all the time, it’s kind of hidden in the background. I can look back and see obviously I was treated differently sometimes because of the way I looked. Over time, especially recently, I realized I’ve just got to be myself. I don’t have to put on a mask for anybody. At the end of the day if you be yourself, you’ve got to be happy, even if other people aren’t happy with you. To young kids coming up in the sport I’d say, if people don’t like who you are it doesn’t matter. You’re going to be happier being who you are.

Do you have a role model you look up to?

Allen Iverson, that’s my guy. I always looked at him, how he was different and he was controversial. He was different, but he embraced it and he didn’t care. He did his own thing and that’s something that I respect him a lot for.

What do you love about swimming?

I like putting in work and seeing results from my hard work.

I just like competing in general. I just like the competition, I’m a super competitive person so that’s the thing I like most. I like pushing myself. I think I just like to put in the work, that’s what you do in swimming. I like putting in work and seeing results from my hard work.

Are you guys competitive within the national team?

Yuri (Kisil) brought his Switch over to my first world championships. We were playing a game called Super Smash Bros. and I was getting pretty heated at Super Smash Bros. I definitely had my moments.

What would you like to see for the future of our sport?

We’ve got to make swimming a little more exciting. I don’t know how we are going to do this, but we’ve got to expand, make it more fun for people to watch and, in turn, help the athletes out. Swimmers don’t make as much as basketball players and stuff, but we can definitely make the sport more media-friendly

What’s next for you?

I’ve been on the podium at worlds. I want to continue to be getting on that podium, keep fighting and obviously I want to see if I can get an (individual) gold one day. That’s basically my goal every day. I’m looking at the people who are at the top and seeing what I can do to get there.

Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity