Kylie Masse’s moment has arrived.
When the 25-year-old swimmer from LaSalle, Ont., walks out onto the pool deck in Tokyo on Tuesday (9:51 p.m. ET Monday) for the 100-metre backstroke final, her long, arduous and uncertain wait to compete for gold will finally be over.
Ms. Masse is without question the fastest athlete Canada has produced in the women’s backstroke, and one of the most talented the country has seen in the pool.
She won bronze at the 2016 Rio Games, then elevated herself to a pair of world championships in 2017 and 2019, briefly holding the world record in the process, and has almost everything but Olympic gold to show for her mastery of the discipline.
The pandemic delay, which came just as she was reaching peak form in 2020, severely derailed her training and competition schedule for more than half a year. That has only made her more determined to write herself into the history books this week.
But few events boast more elite-level competition than the 100-m backstroke. To call this final a clash of titans, a nail-biter or any of the other sporting clichés one might conjure, would be – in this case – entirely justifiable and completely accurate.
The pool is practically brimming with future legends, as Ms. Masse lines up in the final against Australia’s Kaylee McKeown and American Regan Smith. Each of them have held the world record at one time or another over the past few years, with McKeown claiming current bragging rights.
The 100-m preliminary heats on Sunday were a microcosm of that battle. Ms. Masse swam first, setting an Olympic record of 58.17. It stood for three minutes before it was broken by Ms. Smith (57.96), and again by Ms. McKeown (57.88) a few minutes after that.
The jostling continued in the semi-finals Sunday, with Ms. Masse winning one semi (58.09), just ahead of Ms. McKeown, and Ms. Smith breaking the Olympic record yet again in the other (57.86).
Throw all three of them in one pool, and you get Monday’s final.
But for Canada’s swim team – which kicked off the Olympics with a thrilling silver medal in the women’s relay on the weekend, fuelled by Penny Oleksiak’s remarkable finish, and a butterfly gold from Maggie Mac Neil – Ms. Masse represents a legitimate shot at another gold medal. It will be anything but easy.
Getting near the podium likely requires a time in the mid-57-second range, which all three swimmers are capable of doing. Ms. Masse’s world record of 58.10 set in July, 2017, was bettered by Ms. Smith (57.57) during a relay in 2019. Ms. McKeown then hit 57.45 at Australia’s Olympic trials in June.
Ms. Masse has since pushed herself into 57-second territory, touching the wall in 57.70 at Canada’s Olympic trials last month.
“The 58 barrier, I’ve been kind of chomping at the bit to break it for a number of years now,” Ms. Masse said. “It feels amazing to have done that.”
She may need to go even faster in Tokyo. But if Ms. Masse has learned anything, it’s that record-beating performances happen any time, often when you least expect. When she shattered the world mark in 2017, it was a deceiving race – even for her.
“I really didn’t have an idea of how fast I was going,” Ms. Masse recalls. “Sometimes your fastest swims are the swims that don’t feel good, and the swims that feel really good aren’t that fast. It’s kind of a mind game.”
But if there’s a time to peak, it’s now. Ms. Masse has been waiting a long while for this opportunity. When the pandemic closed pools and training facilities in March, 2020, Ms. Masse was suddenly left without a place to work out.
For months, she kept in shape at home in LaSalle, jumping rope, lifting weights and subjecting herself to a punishing cardio regime. But it was the “feel” of the water she worried about losing most. So while some of her biggest international competitors were still swimming at top facilities around the world, Ms. Masse did her best to maintain a competitive backstroke in her parents’ backyard pool.
By June, something had to give. Ms. Masse, who rose to prominence while swimming at the University of Toronto, decided with varsity coaches Byron MacDonald and Linda Kiefer that it was best if she left the program to join Canada’s national team. The calculous was simple: The Toronto university’s pool was closed indefinitely, but Swimming Canada’s facility was reopening. Not long after, Kiefer made the jump, too, helping keep the push going for Tokyo.
By November, Ms. Masse returned to competition after a seven-month absence, joining the International Swimming League for races in Budapest. Since Rio, she has encountered more detours and roadblocks than she could have imagined. But when she returned to Canadian Olympic trials this summer and broke the 58-second barrier for the first time, it sent a strong message that Ms. Masse was back.
That determination, and her sunny demeanour throughout, doesn’t surprise Canadian coach Ben Titley. When he talks about Ms. Masse, the coach describes two very different people – the competitor in the pool, and Ms. Masse outside the water.
Ms. Masse, the person, is unfailingly polite, soft-spoken and always smiling. When she learned her world record had been broken, the first thing Ms. Masse did was send a congratulatory text to her rival, wishing her well. For these reasons, Swimming Canada often leans on Ms. Masse to be their spokeswoman.
“I hate to use the word nice – it’s too vague,” Mr. Titley says. “But Kylie Masse is a nice person. She’s someone you want to sit down to chat with, about anything.”
Ms. Masse the competitor is very different. When the goggles go on, she’s an absolute terror in the water for her rivals; a picture of determination, consistency and competitive snarl. Her ability to flick that switch is something her coaches love.
In an interview before the Olympics, Ms. Masse described her thought process after learning her backstroke record had been broken a few years ago. First, she sent the congratulatory text, then she made a promise to herself.
“Challenge accepted,” Ms. Masse said.
Her smile said one thing. The words said another.
With a report from Rachel Brady
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