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Relay swim silver Canada's first medal in Tokyo, Oleksiak earns fifth Olympic medal

·6 min read

TOKYO — After endless months of training and no international competition, the women's relay team was finally able to express its race speed and produce Canada's first medal of the Tokyo Olympics.

Toronto's Penny Oleksiak and Kayla Sanchez, Maggie Mac Neil of London, Ont., and Rebecca Smith of Red Deer, Alta., won silver in the women's 4 x 100 freestyle relay during the first finals session Sunday at the Tokyo Aquatic Centre.

With the closing pace that made her an Olympic multi-medallist at age 16 five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Oleksiak got her hand on the wall before American Simone Manuel in a duel for second place behind victorious Australia.

Canada finished ahead of the United States for the first time in the history of the event.

"I think it’s kind of crazy," Oleksiak said. "I think we were all hopeful that we would get a medal. We didn’t know what medal it would really be. I think we all just wanted one. For it to be a silver, it’s pretty crazy I think.”

The Aussies smashed the world record with a time of three minutes 29.69 seconds. Canada's 3:32.78 edged the U.S. by three hundredths of a second.

Oleksiak's fifth career medal ties her with rowing's Lesley Thompson-Willie and track and field's Phil Edwards for the most by a Canadian in Summer Olympics.

Oleksiak had coincidentally tied with Manuel for 100-metre freestyle gold and also claimed butterfly silver in 2016. Oleksiak anchored both freestyle relay teams to bronze in Rio.

Oleksiak, Smith and Mac Neil are 21 and Sanchez is 20. The women train together at Toronto's Pan Am Sports Centre.

"We've all grown up together " Oleksiak said. "We've known each other since we were like 10. It's crazy 10, 11 years later we're at the Olympics together and winning a silver medal is wild.

"We have a lot of faith in each other and a lot of trust in each other."

Canada's top swimmers were out of the water for 122 days after the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the globe in the spring of 2020. That was the most among the top 10 swim countries in the world.

When the swimmers could get back in the pool, travelling to what few international competitions there were wasn't feasible. Precious training days in the pool would be lost to Canada's requirement of a 14-day quarantine upon return.

The swim trials were cancelled in 2020 when Tokyo's Games were postponed to 2021. This year's trials at the Pan Am Pool in April were pushed back to May and again to June as Ontario grappled with the coronavirus.

The Olympic Games are Oleksiak's first international competition since January 2020.

The relay team hadn't raced internationally since claiming a bronze medal at the 2019 world championship in Gwangju, South Korea.

"That relay, getting that result, was not easy," Canadian coach Ben Titley said. "That's probably the most emotional I've been after a race just because I know what went into it.

"We've raced once in 18 months. There isn't another country in the world that I'm aware of, and certainly ones that are involved in finals and shooting for medals, that's been anywhere close to that sort of scenario.

"You don't get better at something if you don't practise it. That's been a stress. That's been emotional. That's why that relay meant so much.

"Full credit to the girls just showing that tough times don't last, but the memories and the things that they will remember from that will."

International Olympic Committee members and international sport federation heads not hanging medals around athletes' necks in Tokyo because of pandemic precautions, the Canadian women did the honours for each other on the podium.

Mac Neil swam the relay's second leg an hour after qualifying for Monday morning's 100-metre butterfly final. The reigning world champion in the event posted the sixth-fastest time in semifinals.

"Having these girls with me definitely gave me the extra boost of energy that we needed to get silver," Mac Neil said.

Canada was fifth after the leadoff leg by Sanchez and sixth following Mac Neil's swim. After Smith pulled Canada into fourth, the three women watched in suspense as Oleksiak duked with out with Manuel.

"Oh my goodness, I was screaming so loud," Smith said. "She finished so great."

Oleksiak also overtook Sweden's Sophie Hansson on the last leg. The Swedes were second after three swimmers before fading to sixth.

A few expletives before diving in fuelled Oleksiak over her final strokes.

"I kind of knew I had to touch second," she said. "I really didn't have a choice at that point. A lot of swearing before the race from me. I'm yelling at the girls. I'm on the block yelling at myself."

In Sunday's night session, Kylie Masse of LaSalle, Ont., finished first in her qualifying heat in an Olympic record time of 58.17 seconds in the women's 100-metre backstroke — only to see that record get broken in each of the next two heats.

Taylor Ruck of Kelowna, B.C., placed third in that same heat. Both Masse and Ruck qualified for Monday's semifinal.

Summer McIntosh, the 14-year-old from Toronto, advanced to the final of the women's 400-metre freestyle by finishing third in her heat, setting a Canadian record of 4:02.72. Brittany MacLean was the previous record holder with a time of 4:03.43 set at the 2016 Rio Games.

The men's 4 x 100 freestyle relay team of Brent Hayden (Mission, B.C.), Joshua Liendo (Toronto), Ruslan Gaziev (Toronto) and Yuri Kisil (Calgary) advanced to the final after fishing fourth in their heat with a time of 3:13.00.

Markus Thormeyer of Delta, B.C., came in sixth in his heat the men's 100-metre backstroke while Calgary's Cole Pratt was seventh. Neither qualified for the event semifinal.

Winnipeg's Kelsey Wog and Kierra Smith of Kelowna, B.C., both finished seventh in their respective heats in the 100-metre breaststroke and did not advance.

Mac Neil drew into the relay lineup Sunday for Ruck, who helped Canada post the third-fastest time in Saturday's qualifying.

The women's 4 x 100 freestyle relay team also won Canada's first medal of Rio's Games. Oleksiak, Ruck, Sandrine Mainville and Chantal Van Landeghem combined for bronze.

The Canadian women's swim team wants to duplicate its six-medal success in Rio.

"We came home with a lot of medals last time," Sanchez said. "That's definitely a goal of ours this time. The year we've had, we put in the work and we'll see what happens."

Canada is aiming for the podium in all three women's relays after collecting a trio of bronze in Gwangju.

The women's 4 x 200 freestyle relay is Thursday morning local time (Wednesday evening in Canada), and swimming's final day Sunday morning (Saturday evening) features the individual medley relay.

Katerine Savard of Pont-Rouge, Que., placed 16th in Sunday's butterfly semifinals.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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