National team rookies got job done in 2014

OTTAWA - Swimming Canada's investment over the past few seasons into its junior and youth programs continued to pay dividends in 2014 with impressive performances from senior national team rookies.

The young swimmers who made their debuts at the Commonwealth Games, Pan Pacific Championships and the FINA World Championships (25m) are far from overnight sensations. They have geared their teenage years towards juggling school commitments and sport. That's meant travels across Canada and around the world to compete and train at the highest levels in their age groups. They have dedicated themselves to not only represent Canada on the world stage but to make an immediate impact by reaching finals and winning medals.

This year alone, some made the transition from high school to university. They faced life on their own for the first time while training in a new environment.

Has it been worth it?

"It was a dream come true for me to make Team Canada," said Kierra Smith (LLSC), 20, fourth in the 200-m breaststroke at all three major events with personal best times. "It took me a long time to get to this level and it was really exciting to be put in that situation and contribute."

Yuri Kisil (UBCT and Vancouver-HPC) of Calgary stood out in his first assignments with Team Canada. He lowered his personal best time in the 100-m freestyle to 49.26 seconds, a time achieved in the lead-off position of Canada's 4x100 freestyle relay that placed fifth at the Pan Pacs. He cracked the 50-second barrier at the Canadian Swimming Trials in April and then at Commonwealth Games in July placed fourth in 49.27. At 17, he was the youngest Canadian to ever go under the 50 seconds.

"My time at the Commonwealth Games really set the tone for the rest of the year," said Kisil, who turned 18 in September. "It was great to face some of the best guys in my event. It showed me the areas I really need to improve to be a world-class swimmer. For me, the highlight this season was the whole experience."

Kisil moved further west to join Tom Johnson at the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre - Vancouver. Johnson coached Brent Hayden to a 2007 world title and the 2012 Olympic bronze medal in the 100-m freestyle. 

"To get the insight of what you need in order to be a high level sprinter from Tom is amazing," said Kisil, previously coached by Tom's twin brother Dave Johnson at the Cascade Club in Calgary. "We are able to compare my numbers to those of Brent and it is really cool to see that. Of course the start and the turn are crucial elements in the 100 free but it is my improvement in the swimming portion of the race that helped me get those times this year."

Emily Overholt (WVOSC) also joined HPC-Vancouver but for her it is only a short distance from her parents’ home in West Vancouver. She was thrown into a pressure situation as the anchor for Canada's 4x200-m freestyle relay. At the Commonwealth Games, Samantha Cheverton, Brittany MacLean, Alyson Ackman and Overholt took silver and less than a month later the same foursome won bronze at the Pan Pacs.

"We entered those meets with a lot of confidence," said Overholt, the youngest Team Canada member at 16. "I did feel a lot of pressure as the anchor but the other girls were very supportive and showed a lot of confidence in me. And they swam great to put in a great position for the last part of the race each time."

Overholt can't put a price on what she gained in her national senior team debut.

"I improved so much, particularly my mental game," she said. "I was able to adapt to different situations and really hold my focus. It was still a learning year for me but a lot of fun to have these great opportunities."

Smith, from Kelowna, B.C., was also part of Canada's 4x100-m medley relay that won bronze at the Pan Pacs. After a year of adjustment in 2013, Smith felt it was now or never if she was going to wear Team Canada colours.

"Last year, I had left home, I was living on my own and trying to get friends," said the University of Minnesota psychology student. "It really disrupted me. I knew I had to focus on swimming 100 percent and it really paid off this year. I showed myself that I could still go best times and I belonged at that level. It is very intimidating to walk on the pool deck against a top international field and you need to grasp that confidence."

She didn't need to look far both at home and at her U.S. school for inspiration. Olympians Annamay Pierse and Jillian Tyler were two of Canada's best breaststrokers over the past decade.

"Annamay showed that world records can be achieved," said Smith. "She's been a real motivation and inspiration. Jillian also came to Minnesota. It gives me confidence to know the route I'm taking has been successful before."

Smith, Kisil and Overholt each hope their roads eventually lead to Rio in 2016.