With the 2015 Pan American Games in the past, the pool at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre in Scarborough has turned its focus to the future of swimming in Canada.
Coming off the most successful summer muti-sport event in the country’s history, the goal is to continue to grow the sport not only for the 2016 Olympics, but for the next few cycles.
However, the first step is Rio, and improving on the two medals won at London 2012.
“It’s a lot harder and a lot tougher to get to the medal podium so Canada has slid in world rankings,” said Byron MacDonald, long-time head coach of the University of Toronto varsity swim team and a former Olympic athlete.
“Now we’re about top 10 or top 15 in the world and we’ve won two or three medals at most Olympics since 1988.”
After winning five medals in the pool at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, the pressure was on for Canada to do better at home in 2015 and it sent both established stars and rising talents to the first international meet at the new pool.
Take a tour of the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre
Backed by a roaring home crowd, Canada brought home 27 medals, to place second overall behind the USA, and third in golds behind Brazil and the USA.
“It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like that again, just being in Canada, hearing all that noise and knowing that it’s for you is something really special,” said Chantal van Landeghem, who won gold in the 100m freestyle & the 4 x1 00m relay, and silver in the 4 x 100 medley. “It was an amazing opportunity and a lot of fun.”
While 27 swimming medals is out of reach for most teams at a world event, the goal is to eventually win five or six medals as the next generation of Canadian swimmers can train at a world class facility: the High Performance Centre Ontario located at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre. A few of the biggest names from the Pan Am Games already train full-time there.
Van Landeghem, Michelle Williams, Sandrine Manville, and Martha McCabe call the National Centre in Toronto home as they prepare for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“It’s really awesome to have a place like this in Toronto, let alone in Canada,” said Williams, standing poolside before a daily training session. “It’s so exciting for sport in Canada to have such a top level facility, because it’s one of the top in the world, not just North America.
“To be able to come here every day is just really awesome.”
Toronto is not the first Canadian city to have a high performance centre with Victoria and Vancouver having them since the 1990s. In fact, the Ontario facility has been open for the past seven years, operating out of the University of Toronto until the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre opened last year.
The pools at both locations are the same, it is the additional sports infrastructure at the TPASC that gives it an additional edge.
“I mean, a swimming pool really is a swimming pool. I coached my first world champion out of a four-lane, 25-yard pool,” said national team head coach Ben Titley. “I think as long as you have water and you have space and you’re passionate about what you do, you can achieve success in any sort of facility or pool.
“The great thing though about being based here is more the people and support services around it. We obviously have CSIO [Canadian Sports Institute Ontario] upstairs.”
Williams has made great strides since coming to the new centre to train after graduating from Ohio State University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science. The 24-year-old cracked her first national senior team in 2014. The Pretoria, South Africa native credits her older sister, former national gymnast Lydia Williams, as her greatest influence and has a knack for bringing something gold to every meet she participates in. The sprint-swimmer has flown under the radar for most of her career, but is looking to break out.
• Two bronze medals as part of the freestyle and medley relay teams
• Medaled in the 50m & 100m freestyle and 50m butterfly at Canadian Summer Nationals in Pointe-Clare, Quebec
• Won gold medal in 4 x 100 freestyle relay at 2015 Pan Am Games
• Won first national title in the 100m freestyle and silvered in the 50m freestyle at Team Canada Trials
Chantal van Landeghem
Van Landeghem has no regrets since making the decision to put her studies on hold and focus on swimming full-time at the new aquatic centre. For the 21-year-old it’s made her training a little easier, especially since the NCAA championship’s would have been two weeks before the Olympic trials and could have caused issues. The Winnipeg, Man., native’s focus is to make the Olympic team for Rio 2016 as part of a relay team or individual.
2015 Toronto Pan Am Games:
• Won the gold medal in the 100m freestyle; set a new Pan Am Games and Canadian record
• Anchored the gold medal winning 4 x 100m freestyle relay team; set a new Pan Am Games and Canadian record
• Anchored the silver medal winning 4 x 100m medley relay team.
• Won bronze medal as part of 4 x 100m freestyle relay team at 2015 World Swimming Championships
On top of the pool itself, the CSIO provides athletes with dry-land training, physiotherapy, on-site doctors, and the latest in sports science to give them the extra edge in international competition.
“Virtually all the medals we’ve won recently have been from swimmers who are at these national centres,” said MacDonald. “Because of the small margin of error, you’ve got to do everything right and be committed full time as an athlete.”
London Olympic medalists Brent Hayden and Ryan Cochrane both benefitted from training at the High Performance Centres in British Columbia and could do so without straying too far from home.
Hayden retired after winning a bronze in the 100m freestyle in 2012, capping a career that included 6 world championship medals and is the Canadian record holder at 50m, 100m, and 200m free.
Cochrane is looking to add an Olympic gold medal to his silver from London, and bronze from Beijing in the 1,500m. In 2013, he won silver in the 1,500m, and bronze in the 400m at World Championships to pass Hayden as the most decorated Canadian swimmer at the event.
He competed in his first Pan Am Games in 2015 winning gold in the 400m and 1,500m freestyle events, and a bronze as a member of the 4 x 200m relay team.
We’re in a unique position with swimming where we actually lose everyone from our sport. Every other sport is hoping to get kids involved. Well pretty much every kid learns to swim because they don’t want to drown or their parents don’t want them to drown at least. Byron MacDonald, U of T swimming coach and CBC swimming analyst
Now, Ontario, which has the largest base of swimmers, has the programs in place to train from the grassroots and attract top talent that lives closer to Toronto than B.C.
“These new pools in Scarborough and Markham (home of Pan Am water polo) are going to be absolutely fantastic additions to the Ontario landscape, and already are proving to be fantastic additions to the Ontario landscape,” said Darin Muma, Swim Ontario’s Performance Programs Manager.
“So, I think Ontario has a big advantage now because of the increased facilities and programs like the academy and the National Training Centre can be fully taken advantage of the big competitive swimmer population.”
Manville moved to Toronto from Montreal to train at the new facility. The sprint-swimmer grew up in Boucherville, a small town in Quebec. While she misses being with her friends and family, being on her own helps her to focus more on her training. The 23-year-old just missed out on a spot on the Canadian Olympic team in 2012, but rebounded the next year by securing a place on the senior national team. She is currently taking the year off from her studies in order to focus on her swimming and qualifying to be part of team Canada for Rio 2016.
• Won gold as lead swimmer in the 4 x 100-m freestyle relay team at 2015 Pan Am Games.
• Won silver in the 4 x 100-m medley team at the 2015 Pan Am Games.
• Won bronze in the 4 x 100-m mixed freestyle at the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia.
McCabe is one of the female swimmers from the High Performance Centre who already has some Olympic experience being a part of the team in London 2012 where she finished fifth in her event, the 200m breaststroke. In 2012, she was named the Female Swimmer of the Year at Swimming Canada’s Big Splash Awards. In 2015, it was a rebound year for the 26-year-old who suffered a stress fracture in her right clavicle at the Canadian Trials in 2014. The Toronto, Ont., native graduated with a degree in kinesiology and health sciences from the University of British Columbia.
• Won a silver in the 200m breaststroke at the 2015 Pan Am Games
• Bronze at the 2011 FINA World Championship in the 200m breaststroke
In addition to the High Performance Centre, TPASC is home to Swim Ontario programs designed to develop the younger generation of swimmers looking towards the 2020 and 2024 games. These programs are the Ontario Swimming Academy, and NextGen, which exists at the other National Centres, but is just getting off the ground in Toronto.
NextGen identifies younger athletes who have potential to compete and train at the highest levels of international swimming. They stay mostly with their home clubs, but they also spend time at the High Performance Centre.
“This will provide a great opportunity for younger swimmers with ambition to progress to the High Performance Centre,” said John Atkinson, High Performance Director for Swimming Canada. “The training times and Science and Medicine support for the two programs really does allow for world class support for developing athletes as well as Seniors pursuing their dream of representing Canada at the highest level.”
Due to the timed individual nature of swimming, top talent can be identified as early as nine or ten years old, so the earlier one can start training at a high level, the better prepared athletes will be for the senior team.
“There are certain things that need to be done by certain ages in terms of technical development,” said Muma. “It’s really, really hard to go back and fix a 17-year-old who has sub-par technique.”
The problem is that in order to support younger athletes from outside of the Toronto area, there needs to be a system in place to support them because they are too young to be on their own.
“Until there’s an accommodation piece attached to a facility like this it’s tough for younger kids to be here and to train full-time unless they’re of age, even 17, 18-year-olds coming to university here at U. of T. Scarborough,” said Titley. “That link has to develop more.”
This is especially important because there is a group of five or six 15-year old girls that are the best in their age group.
“At the 2015 Junior World Championships in Singapore we were fifth on Gold Medals and fourth on total medals, and fourth on points,” said Atkinson. “Showing there is great talent in the pipeline for the 2020 Tokyo Games, and some will progress to Rio before then.”
Given how recently TPASC opened as the High Performance Centre, the best athletes from that will make the biggest impact a few years from now. Probably when the juniors now are training with coach Titley on the senior national team.
“We only really trained in this facility for five, six months,” said Titley. “So it’s only really going to be now when the younger ones start to come in and the athletes can start to see ‘O.K. this is a place or destination for me to go swim’ that we’ll start to see the fruits of what this facility can help offer.”
Road to Rio
John Atkinson, the high performance director of Swimming Canada, has stressed that the main focus over the past few years has been improvement, developing swimmers from trials to events and from heats to finals.
At the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, Canada had 16 finalists and finished sixth on the point scores — a drastic improvement from 2015 in Barcelona where they had five finalists and came 12th in point scores. It was also the most finalists Canada has had at a World Championship since 1978. At the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, they won 27 medals, second only to the United States. Seven Pan Am records were set as well as four Canadian records and 73 per cent of the country’s swimmers had a better final than heat time.
Canada had five finalists in London at the 2012 Olympic Games, including the highly decorated Ryan Cochrane who silvered in the men’s 1500m freestyle (he won bronze in 2008) and Martha McCabe who came fifth in the 200m breaststroke and if improvement of numbers in other competitions over the years means anything, the number could be higher than that for Rio 2016.