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Swimming Canada looking ahead to Paris, not back at past glories in Rio and Tokyo

Canada’s starry female swim squad is on display this week at Saanich Commonwealth Place.
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Penny Oleksiak leads a powerful Canadian women's swim team at this week's trials at Saanich Commonweatlth Place. (ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST)

The term Golden Generation is perhaps overused to describe a group of upcoming young stars expected to dominate their sports for years to come. But sometimes that generation turns out truly golden.

Canada’s starry female swim squad is on display this week at Saanich Commonwealth Place in the Bell Canadian trials for the FINA world championships at Budapest in June and the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games in July.

But John Atkinson is wary of resting on laurels. The Swimming Canada national coach and high performance director is looking forward, not to past glories.

“We see this week, two years out, as a big step forward to the Paris 2024 Olympics Games,” said Atkinson.

“There are new names here, that will be highlighted on our [future prospects] sheets, that the public has not yet heard about.”

But they will. Maybe in two years at Paris.

Few outside the sport had heard of Kylie Masse, Penny Oleksiak and Margaret Mac Neil when Saanich Commonwealth Place hosted the national trials for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Canada was coming off three medals, all won by males, at the 2012 London Olympics — Victorian Ryan Cochrane’s 1,500-metre silver, fellow Island-trained Richard Weinberger’s open-water 10K bronze and fellow British Columbian-Brent Hayden’s bronze in the 100 freestyle. But they remain the last Olympic medals for Canadian men in swimming.

Few then could have anticipated Canada exploding for six swim medals at Rio 2016 and another six at Tokyo 2020, with all 12 of those medals coming from women. Yet, that class had been percolating in the pipeline.

“It was a rebuilding process after London 2012 and we took certain decision at that time,” said Atkinson.

“You looked at our results at that time at the world junior championships and World University Games and you could see the shoots sprouting up that became the medallists at Rio and Tokyo. It was not evident to those outside the sport, but by 2015, you could see it coming within the sport. They were new names to the public at Rio but we knew all about them coming up.”

Masse and Oleksiak were not overnight sensations who, to the public, seemed to come out of nowhere at Rio and the same with Mac Neil at Tokyo last summer. The Canadian swimming Rio and Tokyo Olympic medallists, including relay racers, competing in Saanich this week are Masse, gold-medallists Margaret Mac Neil and Penny Oleksiak, and Sydney Pickrem, Taylor Ruck, Kayla Sanchez, Katerine Savard and Rebecca Smith. They were part of a long-term development plan. A new one is taking place this week in Saanich.

But the Canada men’s ­program is stuck in 2012.

“For many years we relied on Ryan Cochrane and Brent Hayden on the men’s side, but we now have a production line developing for the men’s ­program,” said Atkinson.

That pipeline is led by the likes of 21-year-old Finlay Knox, who made his Olympic debut at Tokyo last summer after winning medals in the 2018 Youth Olympics and 2019 world junior championships.

“The men’s team is very young and still developing and raising expectations,” said Knox. “Male swimmers typically peak later. We are being patient.”

A total of 552 swimmers from 131 clubs have converged on Saanich Commonwealth Place. There are between 25 to 30 spots open for the worlds team and 23 for the Commonwealth Games squad. Most of the qualifiers will do the double. The trials will also select the team for the World Para swimming championships in Madeira, Portugal, in June.

The trials began Tuesday and will run through Sunday. Qualifying races are in the mornings beginning at 9:30 and the finals in the evenings at 6 p.m.