The pool at the University of Toronto’s Athletic Centre plays host to a variety of groups, from children taking swimming lessons, to university students competing in a game of water polo. But those that enter its waters also enter the training grounds of one of Canada’s most successful athletic programs.
The Varsity Blues men’s swimming team has won a CIS-record of 16 titles; the University of Calgary is second with 15, and the University of British Columbia comes in third with 13. The Blues also hold the record for most OUA championships with 60 titles, including an incredible streak of 32 consecutive titles from 1961 to 1992.
The Blues may not have won a national title since ‘94, but with the last nine OUA titles to their credit, and 11 of the last 12 contested, the prospects of ending that streak are looking good.
Head coach Byron MacDonald, who took over in 1978, has been responsible for much of that success. A highly decorated swimmer in his own right, MacDonald has continued the Blues’ run of success and is one of the most accomplished coaches in the country.
MacDonald, who was named 2012 CIS men’s coach of the year, believes his swimmers are some of the hardest working athletes on campus.
“Our athletes train 12 months a year, full-time… We’re talking 7, 8, 9, 10 times a week,” he says. “In essence, every two years our athletes get an extra year of conditioning.”
But the secret to the team’s success is more than just hard work. “Working hard isn’t necessarily the secret; it’s working right,” MacDonald explains.
For the Blues, working right goes hand-in-hand with having good coaches. MacDonald credits his own coaches for his knowledge and passion for the sport, and that passion has been key to the Blues’ success.
The Blues have also flourished because of their ability to develop swimmers. With Ontario losing more of its top athletes to American universities than any other province, U of T cannot solely rely on recruiting to build its roster.
“They have a history of taking swimmers who were down here and bringing them up here,” gestures Mike Smerek, a fourth-year swimmer who broke the 50 m butterfly record at the CIS championships in Montreal last month.
“We have to find diamonds in the rough,” MacDonald admits. “We find those diamonds and polish them off pretty nicely and they end up succeeding.”
The Blues have earned a reputation for their ability to make swimmers better. Talents such as Smerek and Matt Meyers, who won the CIS 200 m backstroke event, have exceeded all expectations. Despite U of T having the most accomplished men’s swimming program in the country, the team is currently in the midst of an 18-year CIS title drought. Frank Despond is another of the Blues’ swimming superstars, taking gold and setting a new record in the OUA 400 m freestyle in Sudbury in February.
“In that time span, it’s only been UBC and the University of Calgary that have won,” says Smerek. “They’re actually the teams nationally that swimmers are gravitating towards, and we’re trying to get that back.”
This season, the Blues proved they were on track to do just that.
“All of a sudden, the cards started falling into place a little bit,” says MacDonald. “I don’t really think we changed anything; we just got a little more excited.”
Smerek, who also set OUA records in both the 50 m and 100 m butterfly events, initially decided not to return to swim for the Blues in 2012, but later changed his mind. That decision, coupled with other teams’ misfortunes, reinvigorated the team.
“I was going around to everyone on the team telling them ‘We’re going to win this year, we’re going to win this year,’” recalls Smerek.
The Blues came extremely close to capturing the CIS title, finishing second with a score of 547, just 11 points behind winners UBC. Taking silver was itself an amazing accomplishment, since the team entered the championships as 100-point underdogs.
This strong result and their individual accomplishments have boosted the team’s confidence and reaffirmed their conviction that they will soon capture the CIS title.
“We got that taste of victory,” says Smerek. “Next year we’re going to work so much harder… There’s no question about it, next year we’re going to win [the CIS championship].”
The Blues are now focused on recruiting swimmers for next year. Other universities are set to lose a handful of their top swimmers who will be graduating, while the Blues roster will remain almost completely intact next year; this recruiting class could decide next year’s national championship.
“It’s a recruiting battle,” admits MacDonald. “Who are they going to get to replace those guys and who are we going to get to top us up?
“We’ve already got one of the top recruits coming to us next year.”
And if all goes according to plan, the Blues should be the favourite to win yet another CIS title in 2013.