Canada's young swim talent books Tokyo berths at Olympic trials

TORONTO — Joshua Liendo and Cole Pratt are next-generation swimmers no longer.

The 18-year-olds will make their Olympic debuts this summer in Tokyo. The two teens earned their spots on the Canadian team during Saturday's trials in Toronto's Pan Am Sport Centre.

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"There's a lot of guys coming up and I think we're not NextGen anymore. We're here," Liendo said.

"I've seen a lot of guys from other countries who are 18 make the Olympic team and it got me fired up. I want to be there too."

Liendo of Markham, Ont., won the men's 100-metre butterfly in the necessary qualifying time to earn nomination to the Olympic team.

Calgary's Pratt duelled with Markus Thormeyer of Delta, B.C., in the men's 100-metre backstroke to finish second in qualifying time. Both men met the threshold to wear the Maple Leaf in Tokyo.

"What I was trying to do today and what my friend Josh was doing, a couple years ago we were getting treated like the young kids on the team," Pratt said.

"I just wanted to show people, and so did Josh, that we're not 16-year-old boys anymore and we're here to do business.

"I think we're going to carry that through the rest of the meet and further into the summer."

The 2020 swim trials were cancelled with the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

This year's trials originally scheduled for April in Toronto were postponed to May and again to June while Ontario grappled with cases of infection.

The five-day trials, featuring 185 swimmers from 64 clubs across the country, are held under pandemic protocols and restrictions, and are the primary means of selecting Canada's Olympic swim team.

Tokyo's Olympic Games open July 23 and close Aug. 8.

Canada can send a maximum of two swimmers per event per gender, but in addition to finishing top two at trials, racing under the 'A' qualifying time set by the world governing body FINA is needed.

Pandemic challenges prompted Swimming Canada to invoke an unforeseen circumstances clause in January and nominate early six athletes in events in which they excel.

Thormeyer was pre-selected in the men's 200 backstroke joining Toronto's Penny Oleksiak, world champion backstroker Kylie Masse of LaSalle, Ont., world champion butterflyer Maggie Mac Neil of London, Ont., Taylor Ruck of Kelowna, B.C., and Sydney Pickrem of Clearwater, Fla.

Masse is the reigning world champion in the 100-metre backstroke, as is Mac Neil in the 100 butterfly.

The two women were assured Tokyo entries in those events, but both got on the start blocks Saturday to take advantage of race reps they'd been missing because of the pandemic.

"For me, it was just about getting up there and racing," Mac Neil said. "Definitely tonight made it feel more real than it's been in the last five months. I'm definitely more excited heading into July."

Masse broke her own Canadian record with a time of 57.70 to win the backstroke ahead of runner-up Ruck, who earned an Olympic berth in that discipline.

Regan Smith of the United States holds the world record of 57.57 seconds.

"Without having competition for a while and seeing the rest of the world be at normal, or be at more normal than us, it was really frustrating," Masse said.

"Maybe subconsciously it was a little bit like 'hey, we're swimming fast here in Canada, too,' but that wasn't my motive at all.

"I just wanted to be the fastest I could possibly be and I've been trying to break that 58 (second) barrier and that personal-best time from 2017. I was really happy to do that here tonight."

Katerine Savard of Pont-Rouge, Que., was second to Mac Neil in butterfly to qualify for her third Olympic team.

Savard, 28, earned Olympic relay bronze in 2016 swimming the lead-off leg for Canada in the 4 x 200 freestyle.

"I had a dream to go to the Olympics for a third time," Savard said. "This year has been one of my best years. I'm really happy about what I see in the pool right now."

Toronto's Kate Sanderson also qualified for the Olympic team Saturday in Setubal, Portugal where she finished third in a 10-kilometre open-water race.

Trials continue Sunday in Toronto with men's and women's 200-metre freestyle and 100-metre breaststroke.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2021.

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