Notepads, T-shirts, swim caps and pens rained down on the Olympic Park Pool deck as children called for signed mementoes from newly-minted Olympians.
Sunday’s final day of trials topped up the Canadian Olympic swim team to 31 athletes – 13 men and 18 women – bound for London this summer.
The swimmers will be led by Victoria’s Ryan Cochrane, a double medal threat in long-distance freestyle, elder statesman Brent Hayden of Mission, B.C., and the tireless Julia Wilkinson of Stratford, Ont.
The swim team’s goal for London is three medals and getting swimmers in 13 to 15 finals, according to Swimming Canada chief executive officer and national team coach Pierre Lafontaine.
“The Olympic Games are a different ball game than anything else, but I think it’s reasonable,” Lafontaine said.
Cochrane won Canada’s lone swimming medal in 2008 with a bronze in the 1,500 metres. Hayden was a silver medalist in the 100 freestyle at last year’s world championship.
Wilkinson, 24, leads a deep women’s contingent with some promising young talent. She won three of her four races at trials to qualify in the 100 backstroke, 200-metre individual medley and 100 freestyle.
Wilkinson will be a key piece of the women’s relay teams. She swam a marathon of 11 races in Beijing and finished seventh in the 200-metre I.M.
Canadian swimmers reached 10 finals in Beijing.
“Four years ago, it was a young team and we talked about it being a building year,” Cochrane said. “There was way less expectations on us as a national team. This time around it’s still a young team, but I think you can expect great things.
“It’s not ‘go there and get the experience.’ A lot of these kids have raced internationally many times, so I think that will really help them when they get to the Games.”
High-performance swimming in Canada hit its nadir at the 2004 Summer Games, as the swim team produced zero medals and swam in just three finals in Athens.
That was the first time since 1964 Canada got shut out in the pool. It’s been a slow climb back to Olympic respectability, but Lafontaine has even bigger plans for the country’s swimmers.
“By 2020, we want to be consistently among the G8 nations,” Lafontaine said. “That means we need to be five or six medals and 18 to 22 finals consistently. We’re setting that stage.”
It’s been 20 years since Mark Tewksbury, the 2012 chef de mission, won Canada’s Olympic swimming gold, taking the 100-metre backstroke at the Barcelona Games.
The Olympic swim competition runs from July 28 to Aug. 4. Cochrane is a possibility for Canada’s first medal of the Games as he swims the 400-metre freestyle on the first day of competition.
“Now that I’m a leader on the team, I can really carry that on my shoulders a bit,” Cochrane said. “I’m just happy everyone’s expectations matched my own.”
Hayden won the men’s 50-metre freestyle Sunday, but the 100 is his bread-and-butter event.
“My stroke is feeling really on,” Hayden said. “Last season was a real focus on training and not so much racing.
“This next time until the Olympics is going to be focused more on racing. I’m definitely going to be more race-ready by the end of the season.”
A maximum of two swimmers per event at trials could qualify and that was if both met an Olympic qualifying time. Just one swimmer earned a berth in each men’s event with the exception of the 100-freestyle.
Competition for spots was much tighter among the women.
Among the surprises at trials, 18-year-old Tera Van Beilen of Oakville, Ont., qualified in two breaststroke events. She beat world record holder Annamay Pierse and world bronze medallist Martha McCabe in the 200 metres.
Yet another fast women’s final Sunday produced a Canadian record by backstroker Sinead Russell of Burlington, Ont., and brought Hilary Caldwell of London, Ont., on board the team.
Russell, 18, lowered her own Canadian record in the 200 backstroke by over half a second to two minutes 8.04 seconds. Caldwell was quick enough as runner-up to book a ticket to London.
“I knew I was ready for a best time,” Russell said. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I was hoping for a little faster, but I’ll take it for now.”
Andrew Ford of Guelph, Ont., was also among the final additions to the swim team Sunday. He qualified by winning the men’s 200 I.M.
Cochrane cruised to a win in the men’s 1,500 more than seven seconds faster than the runner-up.
“We came into this meet thinking of the 400 and really wanted to post a time that brought me encouragement in my swimming at this point in time of the season,” Cochrane said.
“The 1,500 was more of a working event. Without a full taper, it’s much harder to swim fast. I knew that coming in.”
The six days of trials were designed to mirror an Olympic environment. The sheer intensity of that environment makes favourites crumble and the unheralded become heroes.
Pierse and two-time Olympic breaststroker Mike Brown, who missed a medal in Beijing by .09 seconds, were shattered they didn’t make the cut for London. Both swimmers were in tears following their events.
Even Cochrane felt the strain.
“The emotional toll of the whole week, coming to this point six days later is just astronomical,” Cochrane said. “As much as I thought I prepared for it, it really is a drain. The ups and downs can really get you. I’ll be prepared for that more at the Olympics.”
The Paralympic swim team trials were held in conjunction with trials. That team will be finalized and announced at a later date.