Some may believe that the outcome was inevitable. The University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds entered the 2018 U SPORTS Swimming Championships as the reigning champions, with a talented roster centred around Canadian Olympian Yuri Kisil, among other valuable swimmers, and they left having defended their title. UBC took home both the overall men’s and women’s titles, scoring 1,151.5 points and 1,362.5 points respectively. The Blues women came in second, and the Blues men earned third.
Despite all this suspected sureness, the element of competition in the air was impossible to ignore over the three-day event.
Kylie Masse led the way with a dominant performance at the meet, setting the Canadian record in the 50-metre backstroke and earning four U SPORTS records, one Canadian Club record, and five gold medals.
Entering the National Championships, conveniently held at the Varsity Pool, Masse, for the second year in a row, held the added responsibility of captaining the Blues women. “To have that title, it means a lot. I know a lot of the girls, I know when I was in first, second year, and third year, I really looked up to the captains… I’m very honoured to be the captain,” said Masse prior to the competition. “Not a lot of people get to race their high level races in their home pool and hometown, let alone home country.”
Masse’s stellar meet began in the preliminaries on Thursday morning as the Olympian broke the Canadian record with a time of 26.24 seconds. She managed to better this a few hours later with a time of 26.15.
Thursday night also saw an upset of Olympic proportions, as fellow Rio Olympic bronze medalist and Université de Montréal swimmer Katerine Savard failed to reach the podium in the 200-metre freestyle event. University of Calgary Dinos second-year swimmer Danica Ludlow earned gold in the race with a time of 1:55.43 minutes. The Victoria, British Columbia native earned another gold on Friday night, taking first place in the 400-metre event, and she closed out the tournament with first place in the women’s 800-metre freestyle.
The women’s 400-metre freestyle relay surpassed expectations as one of the best races of the championships. With Masse, Savard, and Ludlow swimming different legs in the event for their respective schools, the event saw a tight battle.
“It always gets really rowdy, and the environment and the atmosphere gets crazy during relays, because it’s always so close,” said Masse. “Team dynamic is really important. It’s something that even as a national and international level swimmer I always go back to.”
“Being part of a team event and having your teammates around you and push you, and are there for you through the training and the competition… I really love that part of swimming,” said Masse.
After a great start from Rachel Rodé, Masse entered the pool to loud chants of her name, and she closed down the gap on Montréal’s Camille Bergeron-Miron to within an arm’s length. Sarah Polley followed Masse, and Olivia Sbaraglia swam the anchor leg for Toronto against Savard, but she was unable to close the gap. Montréal won the gold with a Canadian record time of 3:37.76; Toronto earned second, and UBC closed out the podium.
In addition to Ludlow’s impressive showing and strong performances from the men’s team, Calgary also brought plenty of energy to the meet as swimmer Olivia Bellio hammered a snare drum in sync with the her teammates’ powerful strokes in the pool. The Thunderbirds furiously rang handbells throughout the race, but Toronto, not to be outmatched, began each night with a boisterous chant deafening the entire pool deck.
“This is the pool that we train in every single day. It’s nothing new for us. It’s really neat to be able to see it all decked out and have all the teams here at our pool,” said Masse.
The stands were filled with spectators from all over Canada on the edge of their seats, cheering on family and friends. Four-time Olympic medalist Penny Oleksiak was in the crowd to cheer on her fellow Olympic teammates.
Over the span of the second night, the Blues claimed seven medals, including a bronze from Rodé in the women’s 50-metre butterfly and a gold medal finish by Eli Wall in the men’s 200-metre breaststroke.
“This is my last U SPORTS and last races for U of T, so it’s been great,” said Wall. “It’s always nice to win in front of a home crowd.”
Unsurprisingly, Kisil claimed gold in the men’s 50-metre freestyle. Kisil, another member of the 2016 Rio Olympics Canadian swimming team, looked confident in the water, barely taking time to breathe during his race. He won with an extremely fast time of 21.50, breaking his own previous U SPORTS record of 21.69 set in the prelim round that morning.
Masse confidently took the gold in the 200-metre backstroke finals on Saturday night, setting a new U SPORTS record time of 2:02.17, breaking the previous one, which she also held. The final was an emotional one, as fellow teammate and bronze medalist Sarah Polley shared an embrace with Masse following the race.
The stands were packed all night with the sound of screaming fans. It was the loudest and most energetic day of the three. All the swimmers who had already finished events, especially the ones from U of T, came out and lined the balconies to cheer on their fellow Blues. Throughout the night, the family and friends of the swimmers stayed loud and energetic. Tears of joy and tears of sadness flooded the stands, with many dreams coming to fruition and some dreams being delayed until next year.
Kisil’s main event, the men’s 100-metre freestyle, took off to a nice start in prelims with a first-place finish to move him onto the finals. During his heat, he was behind after the first turn, but to no surprise, the Canadian star pulled ahead and had a solid finish. Kisil sped to the finish to claim the gold medal with a time of 47.12. U of T’s Mitch Ferraro took the bronze medal, confidently stepping out of the water to the screams of his fellow Blues teammates.
With the night coming to a close, the Varsity Blues women’s and men’s relay teams fiercely competed in the 400-metre medley relay. The women took home the gold, and the men earned silver.
Closing out the night, the Blues women finished in second place overall, and the men claimed a third-place finish. Looking forward, many of the athletes have their eyes set for the international stage.
Finally, with much anticipation — but without much surprise — Masse and Kisil were named U SPORTS Swimmers of the Year.