By Asif Hossain
TORONTO – On the heels of four-time Olympic medallist Penny Oleksiak winning the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete, momentum for women’s swimming continued apace in Toronto over the weekend with smashing results.
At the Ontario Junior International, swimmers who are roughly Oleksiak’s age and knocking on the door of senior competition made their mark as national records and world-class times were registered at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.
“I think I was just trying to have fun,” said Mary-Sophie Harvey, 17, who set two national short course records in Toronto. “I had a meet last weekend and the week before so it was my third week in a row. I was just looking forward to getting in the water and racing some people.”
On Friday night, Harvey was one of two Canadian women to break the 400-metre individual medley record (4:29.22) held by Tanya Hunks for over seven years. Harvey shattered it by clocking 4:26.42, while Sarah Darcel also finished under the wire at 4:29.20. Both swimmers train out of a Swimming Canada program, Harvey with the Intensive Training Program – Montreal and Darcel at the High Performance Centre – Victoria.
“It was nice to go under 4:30,” Harvey said. “It just reflects how I’ve been working so far this year.”
That progress was evident again the following night, when Harvey lowered Canada’s 400m freestyle mark to 4:02.23. The previous short course record was Savannah King’s 4:02.76 set nearly five years ago.
“I know that I like to come back fast on the last half. I had a little bit to (make up) on the last 200, which I did and I was really happy about that,” Harvey said of the race where she beat British junior sensation Freya Anderson (4:05.69) for first place.
With her school schedule this year, Harvey is typically in the water by 6 a.m., an hour and a half before most of her teammates in Montreal. She’ll rush to another training session from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and sometimes can be found in the weight room at midday. Head coach Tom Rushton cites her commitment as one of the reasons for this burst of improvement.
“We’ve changed quite a few things in how we’re managing her season this year,” Rushton said. “We’ve been very pointed about how fast we swim in workouts and how fast we want her to go in training sessions.”
Rushton proudly held up congratulatory text messages from Brittany Reimer and King. Reimer – two-time world championship medallist – held the age group record in the 400 free that Harvey now owns, along with King’s national standard.
“As Mary was training, I kind of saw (the 400m record) coming,” Rushton, who worked with both Reimer and King previously as an assistant coach, said of Harvey’s development. “Her season didn’t go last year the way we wanted in (Olympic) trials, so really we’re just trying to build confidence.”
“She’s been quite driven. When (trials go badly) you have two options, you can give up or come back and work harder. After the trials last year she didn’t take any time off at all. Since then it’s just been building for her in a positive way. She’s pretty committed to what she wants to do going toward the summer meets and so am I.”
Other big results arrived on Friday night via two Toronto-based girls at their home pool from 16-year-old Rebecca Smith and a swimmer one year her junior, Kayla Sanchez. In the 200m freestyle, Smith and Sanchez were first and third, on either side of Britain’s Anderson. Smith’s time of 1:52.99 would have put her fourth at the short course FINA World Swimming Championships held in Windsor, Ont., earlier this month, where another Canadian prodigy, Taylor Ruck, took bronze at 1:52.50.
“We now have, if you include Penny Oleksiak in the mix, three 16-year-old girls who are swimming 1:52 or faster on stand-up swims or relay swims,” Ontario High Performance Centre head coach Ben Titley said. “So that’s very encouraging for the future, as long as they can keep progressing, but 1:52.9 was fabulous for Rebecca.”
Sanchez touched at 1:55.87, just behind her 15-year-old British rival Anderson (1:55.44). Sanchez went on to take third place in the 200m medley on Sunday night behind Darcel and Harvey, it was all part of the plan.
“A 1:55 for (Sanchez) was a fabulous swim, the other target for her was the 200 IM to try and be under 2:10 and she did that (Sunday) with lots of target areas for her to improve on,” Titley explained.
“These kids are just that, they’re still kids, and so for them meets like this one are a learning experience, something where they can see the videos, their skills and have things to work on now in the go forward for the next months leading into next summer.”
What Titley, and Rushton earlier, alluded to is an eventful 2017 with the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary coming up for swimmers in late July. Titley would like both Smith and Sanchez to compete for spots on the senior team, with trials taking place in Victoria from April 6-9. There is also the FINA World Junior Swimming Championships next year in late August.
“That’s certainly the goal, as a minimum they make the world junior team and as a maximum be part of the medal-winning swims and podium-swims for the national senior team in Budapest next summer,” Titley said of Smith and Sanchez – who he revealed fought through seasonal illnesses heading into the weekend and still posted strong times.
As for Harvey, she is more than relieved to be heading back to the longer 50m pool, looking ahead to trials and world championships next year.
“To be honest, I don’t really like short course,” Harvey said with a laugh. She’s an affable teenager who spent considerable amounts of Sunday night cheering on teammates from Quebec’s Neptune Natation swimming club that also took official silver in women’s medley relay with Harvey on the second leg.
“I really like long course, and I feel like coming into this season everything is going well and we’re moving along, so I’m excited to work with my coach over the trials and the summer.
Harvey is ineligible for the world juniors, which is an under-17 event for women, making her goal is clear
“You’ll see me at the world championships next year.”