The Varsity Blues swimming team’s season came to a triumphant close on March 9, when they won both the men’s and women’s U SPORTS Championships. The team competed hard at the national swim meet. Yet before the competition even began, several swimmers already had a bigger and more challenging goal in mind — qualifying for the upcoming Paris Olympics. 

“We are a Varsity [Blues] team, [so] our [main] goal is obviously [in] Varsity athletics, but our team has… swimmers who compete both on junior national teams and senior national teams,” fourth-year swimmer Mahaylia Datars said. “So the goal is still always to cultivate that and get people onto those Canadian national teams.” 

As a result, for 30 swimmers on the team, their training hasn’t stopped as they prepare for the Canadian Olympic Trials, which will be hosted between May 13 and 19 in Montréal. 


Training to qualify 

Going into this Blues season, competing at the Olympics has been a key goal for the team, and the team has been training throughout the season to achieve that goal. “The training that we’ve had [and] the energy is different during an Olympic year. I can feel it from the team,” Ainsley McMurray, a masters student and swimmer, said. 

“The athletes are used to several big [swim] meets in the season,” Byron MacDonald, the head coach of the Blues swim team, added. Their training schedule is organized in five-week blocks and adjusted to match these competitions. The team trains at different intensities throughout the season, ensuring they hit their peak at the right time for the right competitions. 

While training for the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Championships in February — where the Blues also won the men’s and women’s championships — the team didn’t train to hit their peak because they weren’t done with their competitions. “The day after that meet, [it] wasn’t like there [was] a big celebration or anything. It’s like another day at the office, we come home, we rest, [and] we start training right away,” MacDonald said. 

For the three weeks between the OUA Championships and U SPORTS Championships, the team trained at various intensities to ensure they could perform at their best at U SPORTS — and they evidently did. 

Yet, now the challenge is ensuring that the 30 swimmers competing at the Olympics trials can reach their max performance again in just a short, two-month window. “[The] feeling in the coaching staff… is that we can come right out of [U SPORTS]… and do a ‘mini-season’ for two months, where we’ll have five weeks of really good work, and then two weeks were we can come down and try to get those big performances again,” MacDonald said. 

With this intense training schedule, some Blues swimmers have participated in training camps in Fort Lauderdale, Florida or Niagara, Ontario, to prepare for the trials. “We’re doing everything we can to put [us] in the best possible position,” second-year swimmer Benjamin Loewen said regarding the training camps. 

Dreams and realities 

Qualifying for the Olympics is a dream for many swimmers on the team, and the Blues have a history of producing Olympic swimmers. “[MacDonald] very much promotes putting an extra focus on Canadian trials, [because] he wants to see swimmers make the national team,” Loewen added. MacDonald is a former Olympian, having swam with Team Canada at the 1972 Munich Olympics. 

The most prominent recent example of a Blues swimmer succeeding internationally is Kylie Masse, who swam for Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Masse won the bronze medal in the 100-metre backstroke in Rio while still a Varsity Blues athlete. She would leave the Blues to begin training with the Canadian national team program in 2019. 

Additionally, in more recent history, third-year swimmer Gabriel Mastromatteo competed with Team Canada at the Tokyo Olympics, where he raced in the 4×100 metre medley relay. Mastromatteo is the only current team member with Olympic experience, yet several other swimmers — including McMurray — have competed with Team Canada at other international swimming events. 

Gabriel Mastromatteo is the only current member of the team with Olympic experience. COURTESY OF SEYRAN MAMMADOV CC VARSITY BLUES MEDIA

Regardless, the swimmers also recognize the reality of the situation — qualifying for the Olympics is extremely difficult. “Even if you win the meet, win the Olympic trials, it doesn’t matter unless you make the time that’s set by the World Aquatics Federation,” MacDonald explained. “And if you don’t [match] that time, [it] doesn’t matter if you win our trials, you’re not going.”

MacDonald estimates that around five to 10 swimmers on the Blues team will be able to make the Olympic team, and that a smaller handful may be capable of winning a medal. When you’re racing against swimmers from all over the country, with varying experience levels, qualification is not easy. 

Yet, the hope remains, and as McMurray stated: “If you have a lane, you have a chance.”

With a victorious sweep at the U SPORTS Championship, the swim team has already achieved one of their big goals of the season. And while their goal of qualifying for the Olympics is an even bigger challenge, the team has the determination to succeed.