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Ryan Cochrane sees a new generation of Canadian swimmers coming through the ranks and finds their collective enthusiasm energizing

Associated Press

Canada's No. 1 swimmer, Ryan Cochrane, competes in his No. 1 event – the 1,500-metre freestyle Saturday – to cap what he believes may be a breakthrough moment for the national swim team at the 2015 Pan Am Games.

At 26, Cochrane is the de facto leader of an up-and-coming squad that's made a splash at this event – everyone from 17-year-old Emily Overholt, who had some hard luck in the 400-metre medley to 20-year-old Santo Condorelli, the most promising youngster on the men's side.

Seven years ago, Cochrane helped put Canada back on the swimming map when he won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the 1,500 – and then followed it up with silver in London four years later.

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At a time when the sport was in a fallow period at the elite level, he was the one shining exception.

But now, he sees a new generation coming through the ranks and finds their collective enthusiasm energizing.

"I can appreciate the straight excitement they get from this environment," said Cochrane. "It kind of resonates with all of us. The support we get here is going to be something that's going to stay with us. This is one of the most exciting events I've ever been part of – in terms of how loud it is at the pool every day. As an athlete, that really shakes you to the core."

When Cochrane first broke into the upper echelons of swim racing, he was comfortable leading by example, but not necessarily in articulating the message of the national team. Over time, that role and responsibility has changed to the point where he now gets "really excited by the premise of being able to lead the team.

"It's about leaving your legacy on the sport," he explained. "That means, 'How can we help the next generation do even better things than we've done?' You want to build that so in Tokyo and beyond, at the Olympic Games, we can win four, five, six medals and keep building off that."

Cochrane's impressive resume includes six world championship medals, the most ever for a Canadian. After he competes Saturday, he is off to Kazan, Russia for the 2015 FINA world swim championships, where he will once again be Canada's best medal hope.

Cochrane calls the quick turnaround from Pan Ams to worlds "a very particular balancing act. You want to be prepared and race hard and do well in Canada, but also, the world championships is as big as it gets for swimming, other than an Olympic Games. It's also our last chance to show our competitors what we can do before an Olympic year – and that's also really important in the four-year cycle.

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"I'm going to try to put together a really well-rounded race at a reasonable time for what I expect right now – and hopefully build off that in just a couple of weeks."

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