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Penny Oleksiak trains at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre ahead of the start of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23, 2021.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

As one of the architects of Canada’s international swimming success, Ben Titley’s job is to ensure his squad will be a contender in Tokyo. But in the lead-up to these Olympics, the no-nonsense coach has added another role to his long list of responsibilities: manager of expectations.

It may be his toughest job yet.

When the Canadian women’s team exited the pool at the 2016 Rio Summer Games, they were on top of the sport; an upstart collection of precocious teenagers and early-20-somethings who took on the world and surprised everyone, even themselves, by winning six medals.

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Five years later, they arrive in Tokyo with massive expectations on their shoulders, the result and burden of that explosive success. At the centre of it all in Rio was Olympic debutant Penny Oleksiak, who won four medals despite being just 16.

Now Canada wants them to do it all over again.

Make no mistake, the women’s squad is going for the podium. But as Titley is careful to point out, Canada still has one of the youngest rosters on the international swimming scene.

Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck are just 21 years old. Medley specialist Sydney Pickrem is 24. And backstroke contender Kylie Masse, the veteran of the squad, is only 25. Sprinkle in Olympic newcomers Maggie Mac Neil (21), Kayla Sanchez (20) and Summer McIntosh, who turns 15 next month, and the youth movement is still very much happening.

“That’s one of my strategies for trying to play things down, that we are still on the young side,” Titley says.

“The average age of other relay teams [at recent meets] was probably three, four, or five years older. So even if you fast forward to the Olympic Games in 2024 in Paris, the Canadian team as it stands right now would still be the youngest team in the final.”

Titley is only half-joking about trying to manage medal expectations.

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Swimming Canada certainly expects to be on the podium, but it’s no given the squad can duplicate its outlandish success in Rio. For starters, Titley knows Canada will no longer have the underdog label, which the team rallied around in 2016. That said, Canada enters Tokyo with one of its deepest rosters yet. And Masse, for example, has transformed from a bronze-medal winner to a legitimate threat for gold.

“I think it’s a different mindset going into this Games,” Titley says. “Obviously, the underdog mentality was a lot more fun. Whereas fighting people off and trying to hold your ground or trying to achieve more than what you’ve already achieved becomes a little bit more difficult – if we allow it to be.”

The team has seen its share of detours leading to Tokyo, including the unprecedented shutdown of its training facilities for about half of 2020.

“We were out of the water longer than any other top-20 swimming nation in the world with our high-performance athletes,” says John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high-performance director. “It was a difficult time.”

At the Tokyo Olympics, Canada’s swim team is taking a deep dive into the data pool

Out of necessity, the swimmers found other ways to train. Ruck weathered the early days of the pandemic working out in a small pool in Arizona. Masse resorted to skipping rope and cycling at home, before heading overseas to join the International Swimming League last fall, ending a seven-month absence from competition.

Despite the adversity, there are more than enough signs suggesting Canada returns to the Olympics in contending shape.

Oleksiak, who battled injuries and burnout after Rio and took a break from the sport in 2018, appears to have found her form. At a U.S. meet in early 2020, before the pandemic closed pools, she won gold in the 100-metre freestyle with a time of 53.41 seconds, beating American Simone Manuel – who she tied for gold in 2016 – by 0.02 seconds.

And at the Canadian Olympic trials in June, Oleksiak swam her fastest time since 2016 in the 100-m freestyle. Her result, 52.89 seconds, was the fourth-fastest in the world this season, 0.7 seconds behind Australian gold-medal contender Emma McKeon.

Kylie Masse trains at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre ahead of start of the Tokyo Olympics.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Meanwhile, Masse has been a juggernaut. After winning bronze in the 100-m backstroke in Rio, she set a world record at the 2017 world championships. Though that mark was later beaten, Masse defended her world title in 2019. And in June, she eclipsed her own Canadian record with a time of 57.70 seconds, ahead of her pace in Rio (58.76).

Pickrem, who fell short of the final in the 400-m individual medley in Rio, won bronze in that event at the 2017 world championships, and then took bronze again in 2019 in the 200-m IM. Last year, in the 200-m medley, she beat Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, who dominates the discipline.

Then there is Mac Neil, who has stormed on the scene since Rio and enters these Olympics after winning the 2019 world championship in the 100-m butterfly.

That depth bodes well for Canada’s medal hopes. But if the squad no longer has the element of surprise it once had, Oleksiak is fine with that.

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“The fact that people know that Canada is a threat, and the Canadian women’s team is a threat when we go into swim meets, that’s kind of a one-up for us,” Oleksiak says.

“If we can go in, and a bunch of girls born in 2000 and after can intimidate a bunch of the older girls, it’s pretty fun. We’re all just going in there with no expectations.”

Penny Oleksiak helps teammate Kylie Masse put on her swim cap during training at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Swimming is one of the opening events in Tokyo, giving the women a chance to set the tone – not just for themselves but for the Canadian team. Athletes often talk about the sense of relief that comes when Canada bags its first medal, hoping the momentum will build from there.

The women’s relay team won Canada’s first medal in Rio. From there, success in the pool began to snowball and ripple throughout the Canadian ranks in the athletes village.

“You feed off each other’s energy,” Masse says. She remembers seeing Oleksiak on the podium the first time, which served as extra motivation for her bronze in the backstroke.

“It really opened my eyes,” Masse says. “Like wow, she can do it, I can do it. … It just made it so real and attainable. So that’s what inspired me, and what gave me the confidence to I think put together a good swim for myself.”

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The Olympics are stress-inducing enough. Managing the pressure bearing down on the swimmers will be even more crucial, says coach Ryan Mallette.

“As far as pressure goes, the Olympics being bigger, stronger, different – it’s a different animal. And I always thought that narrative creates that pressure,” he says. “We have a chance to get the ball rolling. That’s pretty exciting. That’s not necessarily pressure, that’s just fun.”

While Titley is trying to manage outside expectations, he still has several of his own. It would be disingenuous to say that medals weren’t the primary objective. But whatever the count turns out to be, Titley says he won’t judge success on hardware alone.

“If someone does a best time and it’s good enough to win a medal, then fabulous. If someone does a best time and someone else beats them, what are you going to say to that person who’s done the best thing that they’ve ever done? They’re not a failure in my eyes,” Titley says.

“We will talk about medals to a certain extent or places that we think we can get to and obviously the medals are the things that make everybody happy, but it shouldn’t be the thing that we focus on.”

With a report from Rachel Brady

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