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Focus switches to pool as open water racing concludes

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DOHA, Qatar – Open water competition wrapped up Thursday at the World Aquatics Championships, a day after Canada’s pool team arrived in Doha, Qatar.

Teenagers Emma Finlin and Laila Oravsky joined veterans Eric Hedlin and Hau-Li Fan to finish 10th in the mixed 4×1,500-m relay, matching last year’s best-ever performance for Canada. Australia won in 1:03.28, as Kyle Lee out-touched Italian Domenico Acerenza by 0.2 in a sprint to the finish. Hungary took bronze, 38.8 seconds off the pace. Canada finished 3:35.4 behind the winners, with Fan touching just 0.2 seconds behind Franco Ivo Cassini of Argentina.

That capped a week of open water competition at Old Doha Port highlighted by Finlin qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

“I’m pretty pleased the relay matched our best ever results from last year and pleased that the men got better through the week. With the young women they’ve learned a lot and obviously Emma going to the Games is a good achievement,” said Swimming Canada Distance/Open Water Coach Mark Perry, Canada’s open water head coach at the worlds.

Hedlin was Canada’s top performer in Wednesday’s 5-km open water races. The 30-year-old finished 11th, 9.8 seconds off the pace set by Logan Fontaine of France (51:29.3). Fontaine’s countryman Marc-Antoine Olivier was 0.3 seconds behind for silver, followed by Italian Domenico Acerenza (+0.7). Fan, who trains at the High Performance Centre – Vancouver, finished 41st (+3:43.1).

“I knew I wanted to do better than my 10-km and I was really happy that through the race I was able to hold on to the top pack and finish with some of the biggest names in the world,” said Hedlin.

The two-time medallist in the distance, who came 31st in Sunday’s 10-km, represents Victoria’s UVic Pacific Coast Swimming.

“Through the race I just had so much fun… It was always either moving up or trying to catch up, or going around a buoy or trying to get someone off my feet. It’s a very dynamic race and I’m really happy with the result,” said Hedlin, 30.

On the women’ side, Finlin came 23rd, 1:30.5 behind Sharon van Rouwendal of the Netherlands, who added 5-km gold (57:33.9) to her 10-km win from Saturday. Australian Chelsea Gubecka took silver (+1.1), and Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil the bronze (+2.9). Oravsky, who swims for the Barrie (Ont.) Trojans, was 38th (+1:48.5).

Finlin, who represents Edmonton Keyano Swim Club, qualified for Paris through her 24th place 10-km performance. But the 18-year-old didn’t find out until three days later after initially thinking she’d missed by 0.7 seconds.

“I’m really proud of the way they came back and swam better (in the 5-km than the 10-km). I think it’s hard for Emma to come back and swim better the day after learning she’d made the Olympics. To come back and do a good performance was really important for her, and there’s a lot of learnings from that race that we need to go back to Canada now and work on with her coach Paul Birmingham to see if we can improve some of that stuff through to Paris,” said Perry.

“Laila showed a massive improvement, managed to stick with the pack and finished 13 places higher (than her 10-km). She really learned a lot for a 16-year-old girl. And the two men, to bounce back from the disappointment of not making the Games, especially for Eric to bounce back and be a whisker away from the Top 10 is really good.”

Meanwhile Canada’s 22-swimmer pool team is settling into its final preparations in Doha, where the eight-day pool meet begins Sunday. The 13 women and nine men arrived in the early morning hours Wednesday after a successful staging camp at the Gloria Sports Arena in Antalya, Turkey.

“For Emma to make her first Olympic Games is a special moment and now she can work towards that with her coach,” said High Performance Director and National Coach John Atkinson. “Now the focus will shift towards the pool team with 22 swimmers here.”

The group includes experience: world medallists Javier Acevedo, Sophie Angus, Emma O’Croinin, Sydney Pickrem, Taylor Ruck, Katerine Savard, Rebecca Smith and Ingrid Wilm are among the veterans on the roster.

“The Gloria sports centre was awesome, everything was perfect. We did a really good job with the training. It was really good for me especially, it’s been a lot of ups and downs this year but I’m getting better and I hope that times will show that,” said Savard.

The 30-year-old is embarking on her 13th world championships, seventh in the long-course pool, both Canadian records.

“We have a lot of new swimmers on the team so I think they can surprise a lot of people.”

Other veterans include Olympians Tessa Cieplucha, a former world short-course champion in the 400-m IM, and Finlay Knox, a multiple international medallist fresh off 200-m IM gold at the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games.

Meanwhile, it’s the first long-course worlds for Sienna Angove, Stephen Calkins, Ella Cosgrove, Sarah Fournier, Ashley McMillan, Antoine Sauve and Blake Tierney.

The rookies include youth: Angove, Cosgrove, McMillan and Sauve are teenagers, with Cosgrove the youngest at 16. Calkins, Fournier and Tierney have been members of past national teams, with Fournier breaking through for her worlds debut at 27. Raben Dommann, who turns 23 Friday, represented Canada in open water at the 2019 worlds but will make his pool debut in Doha.

“I feel pretty good. I like the team, everyone’s been fun so far, and I think everyone’s putting in good work. It should be an exciting meet,” said Calkins, who nearly retired before being added to the team for 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Relay times from Doha will be ranked against those from last year’s worlds to determine the 16 countries qualified for each relay in Paris.

“When we’ve gone through this world championships we’ll know where all the relays rank. So there’s still a lot riding on the outcomes from this world championships,” Atkinson said. “It’s also going to be a great opportunity for our pool swimmers that are here to test themselves against the best in the world and get themselves ready for our Trials in May.”

More than 2,600 athletes representing 201 countries and the World Aquatics Refugee Team are in Doha to compete in 75 medal events across six aquatic sports.

Live streaming and extensive coverage will run from Feb. 2-18 on, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem. See the full streaming and broadcast schedule here.

Fans can also follow along on Instagram and X through @CBCOlympics and @SwimmingCanada for highlights throughout the competition.

Full open water results.

Full team Canada roster.

Pool swimming schedule and entries.