With the welcome news that there are now revised dates for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics to begin, all of sport is still at a standstill.
As the entire global population grapples with COVID-19 and the spread of the coronavirus, arenas, stadiums, and swimming pools remain silent.
All patrons of athletic endeavour anxiously watch and wait for play to resume and for the familiar narrative that sport provides as entertainment, distraction, and personal fulfilment, to once again make an enormous contribution to the human story.
This Saturday, April 4, will be the third of five weeks of programming at CBC Sports which will showcase some of the most memorable moments from recent editions of the Olympics.
Episode #3 of “Olympic Games Replay” features swimming from the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in particular the huge splash that young Canadian women made in the waters of the aquatics stadium four summers ago.
The exploits of these women, who combined to win six of Canada’s 22 medals at those Games has resonated with fable-like proportions. It also fuelled a revival of the Canadian swimming program which promises to provide podium results at the Olympics for years to come.
As a group the Canadian female swimmers came to Rio with a new British coach, Ben Titley, who had publicly made it clear that the realistic goal was for the young group of athletes to produce medals in Tokyo at the next Olympics four years down the road. The hope was that they would prove their potential in Rio.
But unexpectedly, in the eyes of the fans back home, the startling performances of 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak of Toronto and her compatriots eclipsed the story being written by Michael Phelps of the United States, who came to Rio as the most decorated Olympian of all-time and added five more gold medals to his other-worldly total.
From a Canadian perspective, the team had been carried at the last two Olympics by the iron man, Ryan Cochrane of Victoria, who had won two consecutive medals in Beijing and London in the longer distance freestyle race, the 1500 metres.
Meantime a Canadian female swimmer had not been on the Olympic podium since Fredericton’s Marianne Limpert won a silver medal in the 200 metre individual medley in 1996 in Atlanta.
“Rio was a completely new territory for our sport in so many ways,” said Brittany MacLean who helped the Canadian women win a bronze medal in the 4x200m relay in Brazil.
“By the end of the Rio Games 11 women from Canada were named Olympic medallists. It was huge growth for swimming in Canada and an incredible momentum to carry into the future of the sport. Swimmers are now going into a world championship or the Olympic Games having the expectation of getting on the podium and the belief that being on top is something realistically feasible.”
The star of the show was Oleksiak who, by tying for gold in the 100m freestyle, became the first person born in the year 2000 to become Olympic champion. In all she won four medals, the most by a Canadian at a single edition of the Summer Games, and was named the Lou Marsh Trophy winner as Canada’s athlete of the year for 2016.
“As the spotlight event of the first week, I’ve found swimming sets the tone for the Games. When it doesn’t go well, it can have a ‘downer’ effect,” recalled Elliotte Friedman, who called play-by-play of the aquatic events in Rio.
“What happened was the exact opposite. You’re in a bubble at the pool, but it was clear by the reactions of the other Canadian athletes they were lifted as Oleksiak reached the podium again and again along with Kylie Masse, Hilary Caldwell, and the other relay teams. Everyone was elevated. That was fun to watch.”
‘Ignited the dreams of girls across the country’
The six medals won by the women were comprised of two bronze in the freestyle relays, silver by Oleksiak in the 100m butterfly as well as her gold medal in the 100m freestyle. In addition, there were bronze medals in the individual backstroke events by Kylie Masse in the 100m backstroke and Hillary Caldwell in the 200m backstroke, who at 25-years-old, was the senior, female, swimmer on the Canadian roster.
“I loved the narrative of how much the women were crushing it,” Caldwell said via email from her home in Vancouver.
“I hope we ignited the dreams of girls across the country. I also felt the power of momentum. I was the sixth of our six medals in the pool so by the time it got to my night to race a podium finish was expected…it was normal.”
“I absolutely loved that,” recalled swimming analyst, coach, and Olympian, Byron MacDonald when he heard Caldwell refer to the “new normal” for Canadian swimmers.
“It was our version of alchemy. It was truly exceptional that the Canadian swimmers entered the Games without even one performance seeded in the top three that season and yet they turned it into six medals. I doubt that has ever been done in history.”
MacDonald also points to the special nature of the youth of the team. Four of the Canadian swimming medallists were teenagers and Masse had just turned 20.
“Right place, right time, right circumstances,” MacDonald marveled.
“We caught two youngsters advancing their careers, Penny Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck, way faster than anyone predicted and they hit their apex at just the right time – to the day and to the hour. And Kylie Masse literally came from nowhere 18 months earlier to grab the bronze medal. Again, it was quite extraordinary.”
Of the 22 medals that Canadian athletes won in Rio, 16 belonged to women. Spearheaded by the performances of the female swimmers this turned into a pervasive theme of the Games for all Canadians.
The pool party that maple leaf women celebrated at the first Games held in South America will long be savoured as a plot point in Canadian Olympic folklore.
The third edition of “Olympic Games Replay” features three hours of swimming from Rio 2016. It will be streamed on CBCSports.ca beginning on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET, as well as air across the CBC television network. Check local listings for the time in your region.