Today is the first day of the U Sports National Swimming Championships, an event being hosted by the Thunderbirds and being held right here on campus at the UBC Aquatic Centre.
The ’Birds are two-time reigning national champs but their close rivals — the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, the University of Calgary Dinos and the Université de Montréal Carabins — are all in the city eager to one up the hometown squads. The Varsity Blues also just overtook the UBC women's swimming team in the national rankings, displacing the T-Birds from the top spot for the first time in 28 weeks, giving UBC some added incentive going into the event.
By breaking the competition down into event categories and relays, we can get a better sense of just how close the Thunderbirds rivals are and how hard UBC will need to race if they want to repeat as double national champions once more.
On the men’s side, the ’Birds will be plagued by the lack of former sprinting star Yuri “the Missile” Kisil. The former World Championship medalist left Vancouver after three seasons with UBC to turn pro and train at the National High Performance Centre in Toronto under coach Ben Titley.
However they still have plenty of experience to turn to with seasoned veterans like sprinter Alex Loginov and Olympian Markus Thormeyer. Loginov is certainly in the mix to at least medal in the 50-metre freestyle. However anything can happen in such a short race; the expected cut to make will most likely be under the 23.25 mark. If Loginov can get close to his personal best of 22.24, a time he set at the 2017 Canadian swimming trials, he has a much better shot of taking the whole race for himself.
On the women’s side, freestyle was one of the weakest strokes for the squad for the last two seasons. However, this year saw the women’s team rebound in freestyle, especially in sprint events. Hoi Lam Karen Tam broke the Canada West record in the 50-metre freestyle at last semestre’s conference championships, putting down an extremely fast time of 25.12. Going into nationals, she is beaten only by Varsity Blues Olympic medalist and former world record holder Kylie Masse, who set a time of 25.06 at the OUA conference championships earlier this month. But 0.06 of a second is less than nothing in sprinting, and Tam could be poised to pull one of the biggest upsets of the meet here.
One of the most entertaining races of the whole championship will be the women’s 100-metre freestyle. With ’Birds Quincy Bronzo and Tam, the Varsity Blues' Rebecca Smith and Ainsley McMurray, and the Carabins' Ariane Mainville and Anais Arlandais separated by less than a second, this race is going to be world class in quality and will go down to the very last stroke.
The 200-metre event will be another tough event, with veteran ’Birds like Maia Brundage and Emily Overholt facing intense competition from a trio of Varsity Blues including Georgia Kidd, Aleksa Gold and Smith, and Frederique Cigna of the Carabins. It’s going to be a race where the Thunderbirds needs to finish as high as possible if they want to balance out points with the Varsity Blues and the Carabins.
On the men’s side, backstroke events will act almost like a gold mine for points. UBC's Thormeyer and Josiah Binnema are poised to split the backstroke events, leaving the closest competition well behind. It shouldn’t be too much of surprise for most, with Thormeyer coming off a recent bronze medal in the 100-metre backstroke at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.
For the women’s squad, it’ll be a case of trying to finish as high as possible because winning any backstroke events is almost out of the question. That’s because of Masse, the Olympic bronze medalist and 2017 World Champion in the 100-metre backstroke. She also held the world record in the event, with a time of 58.10, for a few days back in July 2018. But, with the way she’s been swimming, it isn’t out of the question that Masse could take back that crown this week.
In recent seasons, breaststroke has been a sort of kryptonite for the men’s squad. This year, it isn’t — or at the very least not as much. The 50-metre breaststroke event is almost locked down by the University of Western Ontario’s Mustangs Matthew Loewen. But UBC's Jaren LeFranc and Ruishen Yu have a decent chance at closing out the podium, gaining valuable points for the team in an event they struggled with in recent years.
LeFranc will also challenge Loewen for the title in both the 100- and 200-metre events, with the second-year seeded marginally ahead of Loewen in the longer race.
The women’s team struggled with breaststroke events this season, but luckily for them so have the Varsity Blues and the Carabins. For this week’s championship, the women’s breaststroke events will almost certainly be swept by the University of Manitoba Bison’s Kelsey Wog, a 2016 Short Course World Championships silver medalist in the 200-metre breastroke.
The ’Birds Binnema is almost a second clear of any competition in the 50- and 100-metre events and he is likely to take them with relative ease. It is in the 200-metre event where he and Connor Wilkins will face competition from the Carabins’ Vincent Taboga and the Varsity Blues Osvald Nitski. Still, men’s butterfly is one of the most likely sweeps for UBC this week.
The women’s squad will have their work cut out for them, with Jacomi Strydom, Tam, Ingrid Wilm and Kirsten Douglas having to try their best to hold off the Varsity Blues Smith and especially the Carabins’ Katherine Savard. The latter, having won an Olympic relay bronze in 2016, is swimming in her final U Sports Championships and is eager to leave with a sweep of all her signature butterfly events.
The relays are a bit simpler to look at. The Thunderbirds men’s squad are clear favourites for all of their relays. The women’s squad will probably win the 4x100-metre medley and 4x200-metre freestyle relays, and they can most likely squeeze out a win in the 4x100-metre freestyle relay.
If the ’Birds are able to pull off another double championship, relays will be the foundation to it. The points are worth double but so are the stakes — any mistake or disqualification could cost the UBC dearly.
This is likely to be the most entertaining U Sports swimming championships in many years to come. Records will fall and new champions will be crowned in perhaps the most underrated championships of the year.
The question is, are you going to be there to see it?