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Canadian swimmers lead the charge to Tokyo

(From left) Penny Oleksiak, Sydney Pickrem, Margaret MacNeil and Kylie Masse won bronze in the 4x100m freestyle at the World Championships on the weekend. (Picture from Canadian Press.)

Last week in Gwangju, Korea, the best of Canada’s swimmers competed in the 2019 World Championships. The Canadian women continued to lead the country and the world, breaking a Canadian record for the most medals won at a Worlds competition. 

All eight of the medals were won by women: two golds and six bronzes. This was also the most final swims Canada had reached since the 1978 Worlds, with 19 ‘A’ final appearances. 

It has been many years since Canada had a sustained presence on the world stage, and this group is unique in the number of women making an impact. In less than four years, Canada’s women have gone from being flash-in-the-pan, surprise performances to consistent international podium finishers. With less than one year until the Tokyo Olympics, they are creating a buzz throughout the nation, showing no indications of slowing down.

The performance of the meet had to be the surprise gold medal swim by the young stunner Maggie MacNeil. The 19-year old from London, Ont. took down a field including the reigning Olympic champions and world record holder with a surging last 25 meters. She touched in a new Canadian record of 55.83. That time is the second fastest in history, behind the gold medal-winning performance at the London 2012 Olympics.

The second gold for Canada went to Kylie Masse, who defended her World Championship title in the 100m backstroke in 58.60. She is the first Canadian to ever defend a swimming world title. Masse has been undefeated in this race since the Olympics, where she won bronze. 

Masse also won bronze in the 200m backstroke, joining dual bronze medal performances from Sidney Pickrem in the 200m breaststroke and 200m individual medley. Canada’s women also won bronze in all three relay events, the 4x100m freestyle relay, the 4×100 medley relay, and the 4x200m freestyle relay. The 4x200m relay and the 4x100m freestyle relays were Canadian national records. Performing well in the relay events was crucial at this Worlds, as placing in the top 12 teams ensured the country could enter that relay at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In addition, Canada was fourth in the mixed 4×100 individual medley, a new event premiering in Tokyo. Qualifying the event doesn’t mean the individual swimmers have punched a ticket; Canada will hold the Olympic trials in April next year.  

Even before the swim meet began, controversy marred the pool deck. Shayna Jack from Australia withdrew from the competition three days before, after both her A and B drug tests came back positive for a muscle growth agent. She is currently fighting the allegations.

In addition, Lilly King, the reigning world champion and world record holder in the 100 breaststroke, was disqualified from the 200m breaststroke in the semi-finals for a one-handed touch. Though she fought the officials’ call, she admitted to the mistake after video analysis was consulted.

On the men’s side, Andrew Horton from Australia refused to stand on the podium with Sun Yang from China after Yang won the 400m freestyle. Yang is under investigation for a doping violation which includes smashing his own sample. Horton’s teammate Duncan Scott repeated the podium standoff after Yang won the 200m freestyle, where Yang then yelled at Scott while receiving the medals and leaving the podium. Horton and Yang have received warning letters from FINA, the world swimming organization hosting the event, as FINA rules state that competitions should not be used to “make personal statements or gestures,” as reported by swimswam.com.  

The Canadian swimmers rose above the drama and tackled the week-long event with focus and professionalism. The women are building a wave of enthusiasm that has all eyes on them heading into the Olympics next year.

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