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Ruling the Pool
Kylie Masse. Photo by Michael P. Hall

Ruling the Pool

Olympic-bound Kylie Masse’s extraordinary ascent to the top of women’s swimming

In competitive swimming, where winning scores are measured in fractions of a second, race times mean everything to athletes – but not to Kylie Masse. Bound for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this August, the swimming champ is remarkably Zen about her pace in the pool. “I try to be confident in how I have prepared in training and just do the best I can, and not overthink things,” says Masse, a second-year kinesiology student at U of T.

Focusing less on speed and more on skill and strength is an approach Masse and her U of T coaches say have propelled her extraordinary ascent from virtual unknown just two years ago to top-five female swimmer worldwide. She first made a splash on the swim scene in South Korea last July when she captured gold in the 100-metre backstroke at Universiade, an international event for university athletes. Earlier this year at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Championships she won multiple races, shattered Canadian records and was named female swimmer of the year.

At the Olympic trials in April, Masse broke the national record for the 100-metre backstroke. “It all comes down to that one race, and touching the wall and seeing my time – it was so many feelings all at once. . . so overwhelming and also so exciting,” says Masse. She is one of two U of T–trained athletes who had qualified for the Olympics by late May – the other is alumna Rosie MacLennan (BPHE 2011), the reigning world trampoline champion.

Masse first dove into competitive swimming at age 10, after having spent previous summers taking lessons at the local pool in LaSalle, Ontario, with her brother and sister. Two years ago, Masse came to U of T for the high-calibre academics, she says, and for its renowned Varsity Blues swim program, which is distinguished for its championship record and for producing many elite athletes.

Balancing both academics and athletics isn’t easy when Masse’s training regime involves four hours a day of technique and speed work in the pool and/or strength building in the gym. What has helped is a reduced course load, and the expert guidance of her coaching team led by Byron MacDonald – himself a former Olympic swimmer. MacDonald says Masse’s natural talent and unflagging commitment have allowed her to excel.

“She has a phenomenal feel for the water, which is something that is difficult to teach,” MacDonald says. “What she does in training boggles the mind. . . . She doesn’t put limits on herself and always works hard.”

Masse must work even harder now as she prepares for the Olympics, but she’s got the right attitude to succeed. “Being happy is a really important element of performing well,” she says, “so that’s what I’m doing – staying happy and positive.”

Watch: an interview with Kylie Masse’s coach

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