Preview: UBC swimmers heading into clash with Varsity Blues and Carabins for nation’s top prize

The annual U Sports men’s and women’s swimming championships are underway at the University Athletic Centre — home of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues. UBC is the top contender, though the Varsity Blues will try to make use of their home pool advantage and stop the Thunderbirds from retaining their national titles.

The ’Birds cruised to a fairly comfortable victory in both the men’s and women’s competition in 2017, but it was safe to say that competition from East Coast powerhouses Toronto and the Université de Montreal Carabins was growing. The Carabins are led by veteran Olympian Katherine Savard. In the time since the last U Sports championships, Varsity Blues athlete Kylie Masse became both world champion and the new world record holder in the women’s 100 metre backstroke at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest.

Both teams have the advantage of having veteran leaders and rising stars on their team. Thankfully, this is something that the ’Birds have as well with the likes of Olympians Markus Thormeyer and Emily Overholt as well as Canada West record holder Ingrid Wilm. The trio have been essential to the ’Birds’ performance this season and are all in their first or second year of eligibility at UBC.

The competition will begin with the men’s and women’s 200 metre freestyle. On the women’s side, Erika Seltenreich-Hodgson of the Thunderbirds will have to battle Katherine Savard for the top spot. Savard currently has a U Sports record of 1:54.91, exactly one second faster than Seltenreich-Hodgson’s 1:55.91. The men’s side sees Olympic duo Yuri Kisil and Markus Thormeyer seeded one and two going into the preliminaries.

The next event, the women’s 50 metre backstroke, will see another hot race between rising UBC star Ingrid Wilm and world record holder Kylie Masse of the Varsity Blues. Wilm is entered within half a second of Masse, but it will take some serious sprinting if Wilm wants to catch the veteran.

In a change from last year, the ’Birds are actually well placed in the men’s 100 breastroke with Warren Mayer and Jonathan Brown entered as the second and third seeds respectively. Mayer, seeded at 59.62, is one of the first Thunderbirds in a very long time to have cracked the one-minute barrier — surely a breath of fresh air for ’Birds coach Steve Price, but Mayer will still need to work if he wants to unseat reigning champion Eli Wall of the Varsity Blues, entered in at 59.29.

The first set of relays will be the women’s and men’s 4 x 100 metre freestyle relays, an event that the UBC men’s squad should easily win once more, being seeded first by over a second to number two Université de Laval Rouge et Or. On the women’s side, it’ll take nothing short of a miracle for the ’Birds to take down the Carabins’ squad led by Olympians and world championship swimmers Savard and the Mainville sisters.

With 400 metre freestyle specialist Keegan Zanatta graduated, the event has turned into one of the worst for the ’Birds as none of the three swimmers competing for UBC are ranked within the top 10. This may be where UBC sees its biggest weakness of the weekend.

The championships will end on Saturday with the blue ribbon event of swimming: the 100 metre freestyle. On the men’s side, Yuri Kisil, Markus Thormeyer and Luke Peddie claim the top three seeds but they’ll have some fierce competition as the top nine swimmers are all entered under the 50 second barrier. On the women’s side, it’ll be Erika Seltenreich-Hodgson who will try to crack the podium that’s currently controlled by the Carabins.

Overall, the ’Birds are better in some events and worse in others in comparison to last year’s championships. They won’t be able to cruise to another double championship, and each swimmer will have to show up in top form and race their hearts out. But with some strong individuals swimming and expecting big wins in relay events, the Thunderbirds could possibly retain both their men’s and women’s national titles.