By Jim Morris
Since 2017 Kylie Masse won every major 100-metre backstroke race she entered: World championships, Commonwealth Games, Pan Pacific Championships, Olympic trials. She was unbeatable.
That streak ended at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics when Masse finished second behind Australia’s Kaylee McKeown. The look on her face told the story. For a few brief seconds the shining smile was gone. The sparkling eyes turned to dark coal.
“I wanted to be on top of that podium more than anything,” said the 26-year-old from LaSalle, Ont., who trains at the High Performance Centre – Ontario. “That’s the pinnacle of our sport and to be the best in your discipline is something I always dreamed of.
“I know that a silver is amazing and I’m appreciative that I got on the podium. But I was a little bit disappointed because I did want that gold.”
Masse looks to avenge her Olympic loss at the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, beginning June 18. The two-time defending world champion admits feeling extra motivated by her experience in Tokyo.
“For sure that adds fuel to the fire,” she said. “I’m constantly motivated by my competitors. This sport just keeps getting faster.
“I am so honoured to be among an incredible group of women who are pushing the boundaries in backstroke. I want to make history.”
Ryan Mallette, Masse’s coach at the Ontario centre, calls her the “most professional day-to-day athlete” he’s ever worked with.
“Everything she does is always to enhance what her results might be,” said Mallette. “She takes care of herself away from the pool. She kills it in the weight room. She trains well every day, focuses on all the possible details.
“She’s a very competitive woman. She’s hungry to get back to a meet and get her hand on the wall first.”
Besides her second place in the 100 back at the Olympics, Masses took silver in the 200-m backstroke in Canadian record time. She also was a member of the 4×100-m medley relay that earned bronze and broke the Canadian record.
It was an impressive medal haul, but still one colour short of Masse’s goal heading into the Games.
“Going into the Olympics I knew it was going to be a challenge,” she said. “It was an incredibly deep field. I knew it was going to be hard to get on top of that podium. It’s all about how well you reset, how well you recover and what you focus on moving forward. Once it’s over, it’s over. There’s more races. Our sport is such a process.
“I feel like I still have things I can improve on: skills, technique, race strategy. Things I’m looking forward to working on, no matter what anyone else is doing.”
Masse first gained attention by earning the bronze medal in the 100-m backstroke at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The swimming world really took notice when she won the 100-m back and set a world record at the 2017 world championships. Two years later she became the first Canadian swimmer to defend a world title, winning the race at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships.
At the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, Masse won gold in the 100-m backstroke and broke the Pan Pacific Championships record in the preliminaries. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Masse won gold and set a Commonwealth Games record in both the 100-m and 200-m backstroke, titles she hopes to defend later this summer in Birmingham, England. She was named Swimming Canada’s 2017, 2018 and 2019 Female Swimmer of the Year.
At the recent Bell Canadian Swimming Trials in Victoria, Masse earned her spot on the national team by winning all three backstroke events and the 50-m butterfly.
During her career Masse has been the chaser and the chased. Mallette said it’s “way harder to defend” a title than win it.
“There’s a philosophy that goes to it that is just gruelling,” he said. “Everyone is trying to beat you all the time.
“When you’re coming up, and there’s a target on somebody else, there’s a little bit more fun, a little less pressure. You’re not expected to win. Not everyone can handle it. She handled it better than anybody else.”
At a time when some athletes have struggled with their mental health because of the pressures of sport, Masse manages to put things in perspective.
“It’s definitely a combination of a lot of things, a lot of people,” she said. “My friends, coaches and teammates.
“I feel like maintaining a good mindset in the sport is important and has helped me along the way to have longevity.”
Having interests outside of sport is important. Masse loves being outdoors, likes music and dancing. She enjoys being around friends but also is comfortable spending time with herself.
“I like enjoying what I’m doing and finding a balance between swimming and other things in my life,” she said. “Swimming is my everything but it also isn’t my everything.
“It’s been important for me to find a balance, be it with friends or family or hobbies. Things that take me away from the sport because I think it just fuels the fire for when I’m actually doing the sport.”