The image of Kylie Masse plastered on the door outside the Varsity Pool immediately captures your attention. While the poster doesn’t detail the World Champion down to her actual size — her intense focus is still there. Masse stands tall, her arms crossed, she’s locked in and ready to compete. There isn’t a way to enter the pool without momentarily pushing Masse aside.
Second-year Varsity Blues swimmer Rachel Rodé recognizes the positive effect Masse has. Rodé sees the Olympian as someone to look up to. The pair share a hometown in LaSalle, Ontario, and both swam for the Windsor Essex Swim Team. “She’s definitely been my role model for a long time, in terms of academics and swimming,” says Rodé. “She’s also the nicest person… she’s been that way since growing up, [and] hasn’t changed it at all.”
Rodé is seated on a black sofa beside Sarah Polley, while fellow second-year swimmers Hannah Genich and Sophie du Plessis squeeze together on a smaller adjacent couch.
The group are jovial and energized. It’s a reasonable emotional state for a quartet that won a combined nineteen medals at the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Championships just a week prior, an achievement they admit really surprised them as University of Toronto’s swimming program took home both OUA men’s and women’s championship banners; it was the women’s fifth in a row. Genich also earned the Dr. Jeno Tihanyi Award for IM Excellence.
“We weren’t really tapered heading into OUAs, so I don’t think we were really expected to do as well as we did, so it was kind of a nice surprise,” says Genich. “I think before OUAs we never thought, ‘Well, I’m going to get a medal after this’ or ‘I’m swimming for a medal.’”
“We knew that we were one of the stronger teams, but I don’t think anyone was expecting the swims that we came out with,” adds Polley.
The group has transitioned their focus onto this week’s U SPORTS Swimming Championships; the three-day event begins on Thursday and takes place at the Varsity Pool.
They anticipate an energy similar to, but even larger than, when U of T hosted the OUA Championship last year. In the final days before the meet, the last steps of preparation take hold, practices are tapered, routines are tightened, and the group adjusts to the idea of having the national championship in their home pool.
“It’s a little bit different because we’re not traveling, it’s at home this time, so we’re trying to pretend that we’re going away,” says du Plessis. “It’s hard to get your head in the game when you’re sleeping in your house,” adds Rodé.
“One thing our coaches have been saying a lot is that… we have to keep the momentum going and not be too confident. We still have to realize that we have to work hard,” says Rodé.
Polley can’t contain her excitement for the event. She envisions the atmosphere, the music, the crowd, and even anticipates what her fellow teammates will do.
“During relays, the team chants people’s names,” says Polley. “They’ll cheer, ‘Rachel, Rachel’ and it gets louder and faster until they dive into the pool.”
“Hearing your entire team chant [your name] you get such a rush, it’s so loud and builds up such a momentum that when you dive in you’re just ready to go,” says Rodé.
“You know everyone is behind you because everyone is screaming your name,” adds Polley.
The rapid accumulation of medals is a unique situation that great swimmers are faced with. Unlike other sports, in swimming, each meet presents the opportunity to win plenty of hardware. Polley and du Plessis break it down into simple math. “If you race four events and maybe three relays,” says Polley, “That’s seven possible medals that you can get, so they add up quickly,” says du Plessis, finishing the sentence.
Each of the four has devised a unique way to store their medals, some more subtle than others. “I hang mine off of my curtain rods,” says Genich. “I said this like two days ago, your curtain rods are going to break, you have so many medals,” replies Rodé.
While Genich doesn’t exactly say how many medals are currently on her curtain rod, du Plessis estimates there’s “like a billion.”
“There’s OUs from this year and last and CIs from last year,” replies Genich. “I have university medals on one side and high school on the other.”
du Plessis is far more orderly about where she keeps her medals. Her high school ones are at home in a big box; the medals Polley earned last year are also at her parents’ home. Rodé stores most of her medals under her bed, but she displays the ones of which she’s proudest.
As for last week’s haul, Rodé admits the group has thought about counting them up on the kitchen table and the various locations in the kitchen where they could put them on display. Polley suggests hanging them on the kitchen curtain rod.
A bond like no other
Hearing their uncanny ability to finish each other’s sentences, it isn’t hard to tell that the four are also roommates. The story of how the group decided to all share a home isn’t all that different from most students.
“Finding a house in Toronto is really stressful,” admits Rodé.
“Sarah and Rachel were living together in residence last year and they got very close and I got really friendly with them,” says du Plessis. “Hannah was on Scarborough Campus last year,” says Polley. “So we didn’t see too much of her, but we loved her… [and] she decided that she wanted to move downtown,” adds du Plessis.
“It couldn’t have worked out better,” says Genich.
As fellow Life Science students, Rodé and Polley initially lived together in residence during first year. Rodé is candid about the way their program immediately challenges young bright-eyed students, “First-year life sci at U of T is like death.”
Rodé and Polley’s co-reliance helped make the experience easier to manage. Their rooms are conveniently located beside each other, allowing Polley to shout for Rodé‘s help whenever she needs it. “I can just yell ‘Rach, what did you get for this.’”
“Me and Rachel we do everything together, we do school together, we do swimming together. Literally, every aspect of our lives is together,” she adds “We’re really supportive of one another.”
The 50-metre butterfly race momentarily challenged the group’s familial dynamic, as Rodé, Genich, and du Plessis found themselves paired against each other in the event.
“Before the race, we were joking, let’s all tie for first,” says Rodé. “It’s not the same as racing someone you don’t know, but it’s more fun,” says du Plessis. A supportive Polley cheered on her roommates’ success as they swept the podium, with Rodé placing in first, followed closely by Genich and du Plessis. “You two were really close… I was so proud,” says Polley. “When we swept that was the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me,” says Rodé.
Rodé also set an OUA record swimming alongside upper-year swimmers Hannah Lam, Emily Russell, and Masse in the 200-metre freestyle relay. “I definitely learn a lot every day from racing upper years, it’s definitely an honour to be able to race with such talented people.”
The group places a priority on school, but each strives to meet their individual expectations in the pool. Genich admits that at home, they don’t really talk much about swimming, not wanting to bring the pressures from the pool home or relive the total 16 hours per week they spend training.
Polley recalls an average morning when her teammates’ enthusiasm alone helped motivate her. “I still remember a couple times Hannah coming in the kitchen and she’s like, ‘Oh my God, I had such a good practice this morning’ and it lifts you up.”
Sharing the same values and embracing each other fully has been an important part of what’s made them successful. They enjoy each other’s company, whether it’s during movie nights, studying in the library, or celebrating birthdays.
“We celebrate each other’s birthdays, we have a mini-party in our house. We have party hats for each one of us, cutouts for every birthday, [and] we surprise each other,” says Rodé.
“I find that we all complement each other… We make each other better,” adds Polley.
Rodé defines making dinner in the kitchen as when most of the bonding happens. “We’re all really great in the kitchen,” Polley laughs. “I’m not sure cooking is the right word,” du Plessis adds. “Yeah, styles of throwing together a meal,” Rodé says.
Still, the group ensures ordering pizza is an occasional treat, though they do their best to eat healthy — a task that’s been made even tougher as living on Harbord Street forces them to walk past Krispy Kreme multiple times per day.
du Plessis suggests it’s a good balance and even bought the group some doughnuts for Valentine’s Day. “You’ve got to be happy,” she adds. “My favourite line is, ‘A happy swimmer is a fast swimmer,” says Polley. No one in the group is quite sure where the quote originates from, but it’s one that’s even been echoed by Masse in the past.
“I think we’re all pretty happy,” says Rodé.