PHOTO BY SEYRAN MAMMADOV, COURTESY OF THE VARSITY BLUES

Sounds of water and hands slapping bodies echoed throughout the Varsity Pool as swimmers warmed up for their events in the Ontario Universty Athletics Fairweather Division Championships. While the 25-metre competition pool was empty, the warm-up pool was brimming with swimmers from the Western Mustangs, the McMaster Marauders, the Waterloo Warriors, and host Toronto Varsity Blues. Over the next two days, both the Blues men’s and women’s teams would place first, with the women winning 19 races out of 19 and the men claiming victory in 11 out of 19 events.

The team element elevated the atmosphere for the first event on Day 1, the women’s 200-metre freestyle relay. Rachel Rode, Kylie Masse, Ainsley McMurray, and Rebecca Smith took the U of T B team to first place with a time of 1:40.39. The men’s A team followed similarly, taking first place in a much closer 200-metre freestyle relay with a time of 1:31.89.

The intimidating 400-metre individual medley followed, but rookie swimmer Kate Rendall was unfazed as she touched the wall first at 4:52.07. This, according to Varsity Blues swimming head coach Byron MacDonald, was a standout swim for Rendall, who swam in Calgary prior to joining the Varsity Blues.

After the race, MacDonald explained, “She was able to get down to the fastest time she’s done in, I think… four years, and winning the individual medley when it’s a tough event… It takes a lot of hard work to do that and a lot of perseverance.”

Another rookie, Everett Smith, won the 400-metre individual medley for the Blues men’s team with a time of 4:30.55, with MacDonald commenting after the race that this was “a breakthrough swim for him, and we’re looking for good things from Everett as he progresses through his career for us here.”

On Day 2, Smith also won the 200-metre individual medley with a time of 2:05.04.

Masse placed first in both the 50-metre backstroke with a time of 26.81 and the 50-metre freestyle with a time of 25.11. Christopher Ruus, another standout swimmer, won his 50-metre backstroke with a time of 25.76, which qualifies him for the national championships in February.

MacDonald highlighted this achievement, saying, “Last year was a learning curve in his first year and he wasn’t able to qualify for the National championships, but now he’s trained, I would argue, twice as hard this year compared to last year, and he’s seen the results now — he’s qualified for nationals.”

The first day closed with the gruelling women’s 800-metre freestyle and men’s 1,500-metre freestyle. The swimmers stood on the blocks, pulling faces as they adjusted their goggles one last time before diving into the water.

While the noise lagged at the beginning of these events, the last 100 metres brought with it some of the loudest cheering of the day from both the audience and the swimmers around the pool, with large hand gestures accompanying the cheers as though the swimmers were attempting to physically push their teammates further and faster. Sophia Saroukian won with a time of 8:58.05, adding the 400-metre freestyle to her wins on day two.

The second day opened with the Blues winning in both the women’s and men’s 200-metre medley relay. The audience was vocal in its support, but it was the swimmers poolside who truly created and sustained the rowdy atmosphere as they supported their teammates in each event, with the Marauders and the Warriors especially contributing to the excitement. In between events, teammates helped each other with the infamous tech suits.

First-year U of T swimmer and standout swimmer of the meet, Ainsley McMurray won the 100-metre freestyle with an impressive time of 54.52; she also won the 200-metre freestyle after 1:59.90 and the 50-metre butterfly in 27.14. The women’s 200-metre butterfly was dominated by Hannah Genich, while Osvald Nitskki came in first for the men’s team.

The butterfly and breaststroke swimmers were encouraged by their teammates with unintelligible shouts that were timed in sync with the swimmers’ heads as they systematically emerged from and re-entered the water.

“It’s important that you like your teammates and that you’re pulling for them… the swimmers are helping each other get excited for competitions,” MacDonald explained.

It looked effortless, but in truth, months of training went into cutting times by seconds and milliseconds.

The Blues dominated the meet, with the women accumulating a victorious 1,214 points and the men emerging first with 1,179 points. On what’s next, MacDonald said, “This was a good step, but now we’ve got to step it up with even more hard work if we’re going to be able to take on the teams from the west that are a little bit stronger.”

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