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Canadian swimmer Ryan Cochrane takes part in a training session at the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Village at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London on Wednesday, July 25, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canadian swimmer Ryan Cochrane takes part in a training session at the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Village at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London on Wednesday, July 25, 2012.

(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

London 2012

Ryan Cochrane says it's time for Canadian swimmers to think big Add to ...

Many are looking to Ryan Cochrane to light the fuse Saturday for Canada’s Olympic swim team. He is, after all, a reliable, waterproof competitor and the group’s lone medalist from the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

But the 23-year-old Cochrane has already helped define what’s needed at the London Aquatics Centre. At a recent team meeting, he reminded his fellow swimmers that it’s okay to think about winning. In fact, it’s time for Canadians to look around the pool deck, see the likes of American Michael Phelps and Australia’s Stephanie Rice and say, “We belong here.”

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It’s a message Cochrane is keen to underscore when he takes to the heats of the men’s 400-metre freestyle.

“Everyone says, ‘We want to swim fast’ so we really don’t need to talk about that any more,” said Cochrane. “Instead, you can talk about making the podium a couple of times … We’ve done all the work so why not talk about the best case scenario instead of the worst?”

Canadian swim officials have stated their goals for these Olympics and they’re lofty but equally strong willed: make the podium at least three times and have 15 athletes qualify for the finals in their event. Both marks would be a step up from Canada’s efforts in Beijing and a sign Canadians belong in a sport where the competition has been getting more frenetic and fierce by the year.

“You’re going to see some spectacular racing in the women’s 400 free, the women’s 200 breast, the men’s 100, 200 free,” said Pierre Lafontaine, Swimming Canada’s national coach. “You could maybe have 35 to 40 countries winning medals. That’s incredible.”

The Americans are expected to win the most medals in the pool led by Phelps, who won eight gold medals in Beijing, and Ryan Lochte who won five gold medals at the 2011 world championships and has been tagged as the man to beat in Saturday’s 400 individual medley. The Chinese and Australians will also be in the hunt, along with Cochrane. Sun Yang is the 6-foot-6 speed boat that broke swimming’s longest-standing world record (the 1,500 was held for 10 years by Australian Grant Hackett). Sun is both fast enough to compete in the 200 and strong enough to go the longer distances. Cochrane, who finished fifth in the 400 at last year’s worlds, knows what he has to do to stay within striking distance.

“My turns were just horrendous for some reason,” Cochrane said of that particular race. “If I make sure I hit all those turns right away, I can really push to get on the podium. I was less than a second off last summer so that was good encouragement coming in here.”

Cochrane has an unusual schedule, swimming in the 400 on the first day of these Olympics then in his prized event, the 1,500, where he won a bronze medal in Beijing, on the last. To maintain his fitness, he will leave the athletes’ village on Sunday so he can rest, train and eat properly via a team nutritionist. It’s all part of a well-crafted agenda.

“If you look at him you see he probably looks a little bit thicker, stronger,” Canadian Olympic coach Randy Bennett said of Cochrane. “In Beijing, he was very light and we worried about him. This is the best he’s held through the final preparations.”

The Canadian team will also send out its women’s 4 x 100 free relay team Saturday. The lineup, at least for the heats, is Julia Wilkinson, Victoria Poon, Heather MacLean and Samantha Cheverton.

Lafontaine is counting on the simmers believing in what they can accomplish and showing their rivals,

“‘Wow, the Canadians are in great shape. They’re competitive; they’re tough to beat in the finals.’ It’s becoming a culture set by the athletes, and that’s good.”