“I just want to thank you for speaking up for those who can’t in fear of the repercussions of doing so.”
“Politics is probably the main reason people are not complaining loudly enough.”
“There needs to be more voices heard than those at the top and those who are next to people of power.”
“I’m sorry you had to be shafted by the system but it takes a lot of guts to stand up to it like you did.”
“I just want to applaud you for voicing what so many of us are thinking.”
“I’m glad someone had the balls and the intelligence.”
“Take a coaching course and come work for me please!”
“I hope they listen to you.”
The above quotes were pulled directly from my private inboxes, which became flooded with support in the wake of “Dear Swimming Canada: Figure It Out.” I’m keeping the quotes anonymous (there’s a reason messages and letters were sent privately), but it’s important to note that many came from current and former national team members, including multiple Olympians. Most of these same athletes and coaches are quiet in the public domain, demonstrating how much fear pervades the Canadian swimming community. Their silence is understandable; I was also hesitant to speak up as an athlete within a political system, knowing subjective decisions could affect my future in the sport. But since ending my career, I’ve realized I’m in the perfect position to give Canadian swimmers a voice. Swimming Canada, a non-profit organization that exists to serve the best interests of athletes, has a lot of power concentrated at the top – it’s time to open the discussion.
A concern brought to my attention by the community is the recent and upcoming policy changes to university swimming in Canada. John Atkinson, High Performance Director of Swimming Canada, made his attitude toward the CIS Championships clear in an email addressed to carded athletes and coaches last year. “Coaches and athletes need to ensure that Tapering/Shaving only occurs twice a year, at our trials and the Benchmark Championships in the summer.” Following that, he commanded, “Do not shave in November at the short course Canada Cup or for the CIS SC meet in February or anything else such as the Eastern and Western Championships, this is not acceptable and should not be done, the outcome is a compromised performance when it counts.” John Atkinson seems to believe practicing fast racing outside Canadian Trials and the summer focus meet(s) is unacceptable because it will detract from performance at those competitions.
He could be right. It’s a valid philosophy, though one of many, and I’m not sure how much evidence there is to support it; swimmers on the FINA World Cup Tour seem perfectly capable of swimming fast week after week and are still able to perform at major international competitions. Take Olympic champion Chad le Clos’ winning streak in the 2013 World Cup as an example; he broke the 200 fly world record in Eindhoven at the beginning of August and then again three months later in Singapore at the beginning of November. In the weeks between, he claimed victories in Berlin, Moscow, Dubai, and Doha. Yet he isn’t an anomaly in terms of consistent performance – other examples include Vlad Morozov, who swam a 45 second 100 freestyle at 8 different meets over the same timeframe, and Katinka Hosszu, who has already claimed $125,000 in winnings in the 2014 circuit. I could go on and on with examples countering the notion that a swimmer can only perform at their best twice a year.
Frank Despond, former swimmer at the National Training Centre in Toronto, explained to me how shaving and tapering at preparation meets was actually beneficial to him. “Swimmers train countless times a season so that every aspect of a race can become second nature. However, the feel of rested racing is often forgotten in the hopes that all the other aspects of training supersede it.” At focus meets like Trials, Frank had a tendency to take his 400 freestyle out too fast because he felt so good compared to every other race that season. “I found by the 2nd or 3rd time I shaved/tapered in a season, I developed a better feel in the water for how a fully rested race should feel. I don’t think people should shave and fully taper for every meet, but I think having a chance to experience what that feeling is going to be like gives the swimmer better understanding of his/her body and how it’s going to react at that big meet.”
Is John Atkinson in a position to know what’s best for every unique swimmer’s season, more so than the coaches or the swimmers themselves? By dictating when they’re allowed to shave and rest, he seems to think so. I acknowledge his philosophy of all-or-nothing meet preparation, but I think there is merit in personalized plans for individuals, and I don’t think it’s necessarily true that every carded swimmer’s performance at Trials would be compromised by shaving at the CIS Championships prior.
Savannah King, a two-time Olympian and top varsity performer at UBC, weighed in on the topic. In 2012, Savannah was named female swimmer of the year at the CIS Championships, smashing short course Canadian and CIS records. At the long course Olympic Trials a month later, she swam under the Canadian record time in the 400m freestyle and won the 800m freestyle, qualifying to swim both in London. “Before the Olympics we used CIS as a stepping stone towards Trials. Having the event be short course was a huge confidence booster for me. I had so much fun that weekend and it got me excited to race at Trials, because I knew I was ready after seeing the fast SC times.” Clearly she swam well at both meets that year, and the CIS Championships gave her a confidence boost before Trials.1 When I asked her about the policy changes, Savannah had this to say: “I don’t think that Swimming Canada can stop their top swimmers from shaving at CIS.” Clearly she doesn’t agree with the mandate.
“My concern is that it will take an edge off the meet.”I met with Byron MacDonald, the accomplished head swim coach of the UofT Varsity Blues, to try to understand how new developments would affect the CIS Championships. On the one hand, he said that having unshaved, unrested carded swimmers could actually add more excitement to the meet, because weaker competitors would realize they have a chance to beat those at the top. But on the other hand, “my concern is that it will take an edge off the meet.” Fast swimming creates buzz, and it’s tough to take a championship meet seriously when the best swimmers are discouraged from proper preparation.
Still, there are even more pronounced upcoming changes that could detract from varsity swimming, and they have many athletes in an uproar. Next year, the CIS Championships will have short course prelims and long course finals. Yes, you read that correctly. The pinnacle of competition for varsity swimmers in this country will have an unstandardized format. What was I saying about taking championship meets seriously?
Byron explained to me that the change is a two year test program that was decided by a majority vote of CIS coaches, the logic being extra long course swims in the new year would better prepare top swimmers for World Championships and Pan American Games Trials six weeks later. Swimming Canada’s directive, which the CIS coaches seem to be following, is that the long course season should start on January 1st.
But I was confused. How on earth did this pass with a majority vote? As a CIS coach of a team that isn’t in the top 3, why would I want to change the established format of the championship meet in order to maybe benefit a small percentage of varsity athletes gearing up for long course Trials, when they’re not even supposed to be shaving or resting anyway? Most CIS teams don’t have any national team contenders. Not only that, the change systematically disadvantages teams without access to long course facilities.
“It does seem strange,” Byron admitted. “But I think a lot of coaches felt that if the finals were changed to long course, we might have a better chance of getting FISU selection back.”
There’s the catch. In recent history, the winners of the CIS Championships were automatically added to the World University (FISU) Games roster, and then the remaining spots on the team were filled at Trials.2 To be fair, it was a contested method of selection; critics argued that a short course meet shouldn’t be used as selection for a long course games, and that NCAA swimmers shouldn’t be disadvantaged by missing out on an opportunity to qualify. What is less contested is the energy FISU selection brought to the CIS Championships. Linda Kiefer, assistant coach at UofT and 1999 head coach of Canada’s FISU Games team, had this to say: “it brought a special energy to the meet, knowing that whoever touched the wall first would immediately earn a spot on the team.” Indeed, the fact that each event winner secured a plane ticket to represent Canada at an international games that summer pumped up racing and spectating alike.
But, the same way it smothered the winner-goes excitement at last season’s Trials, Swimming Canada has proposed to remove that component from the CIS Championships as well. Although it’s not official yet because criteria hasn’t been released, Byron explained that communications with Swimming Canada indicate that it looks like the 2015 CIS Championships will most likely be stripped of its selection status. Qualification for the World University Games team (the size of which will be drastically reduced from past years for both men and women)3 will happen at Canadian Trials exclusively, and will also require meeting standards based on times from recent FISU Games. Sound familiar?
Again, this is all based on discussions; the criteria isn’t finalized yet. Mike Blondal, head coach of the top performing University of Calgary Dinos and current CIS Swim Coaches Council President said we should find out for sure when it’s announced at the CSCTA National Coaches Conference this week in Calgary. But even though Mike cares about retaining FISU selection, he downplayed the potential loss. “Personally I do not believe that selection moment for FISU will change the CIS meet much. The CIS will still be the most exciting meet on the Canadian calendar each year regardless.”
“A fulfilling varsity experience can no longer be found in canada.”Many swimmers aren’t so optimistic. A CIS medallist that wished to remain anonymous strongly expressed his opposition to the short course heats, long course finals format of the 2015 CIS Championships. “I don’t know how you’re going to say this in your article, but it’s a complete joke. Varsity swimming in Canada was starting to pick up again, and now they’ve gutted it.” I can see why he’s upset – as a varsity swimmer exclusively, the CIS Championships is the most important meet on his calendar. How is he supposed to get excited about swimming when he feels his focus meet is treated like a joke? “A fulfilling varsity experience can no longer be found in Canada,” he asserted. “If I had known these changes were coming, I would’ve gone to any school in the US.” That’s an interesting statement. Many top coaches and administrators in Canada discourage high school swimmers from attending American universities – but when a varsity-inclined swimmer weighs their options, how can you blame them for choosing an exhilarating NCAA environment? The NCAA Championships, swum short course yards, is often described as one of the most exciting meets in the world. The CIS Championships, its Canadian equivalent, will adopt a joke format next year, and its top swimmers aren’t allowed to rest or shave. Not very exciting.
It almost seems there’s been a top-down shift in attitude to discourage university swimming in Canada. This would be consistent with a European/Australian approach, but it’s my opinion that our education culture and the way it intersects with sport resembles the American system more closely. College swimming has helped develop a majority of the top swimmers in the US, and I believe CIS could serve a similar role for Canada in bringing more enthusiasm to the sport, building depth, and directly or indirectly helping our best swimmers.
Savannah certainly recognizes the ways in which CIS has been beneficial to her career. “Varsity swimming is one of the best parts of swimming in my opinion. Having a team behind you to pick you up if you’re having a rough time or to kick you in the butt when you need some motivation can really help you grow as an athlete. Everything is kept really fun in university swimming, and I think that is why you see so many people excel in that setting. For myself, I always do my best races when I’m keeping things light and have people there to laugh with me before I swim.” There are many factors that contribute to fast performances. Social aspects of swimming, which are highlighted in the CIS environment, are important even to our best swimmers. Savannah’s varsity teammates surely have a positive influence on her swimming career.
Our best swimmers aren’t the only ones important to our country’s success in the sport. Even CIS swimmers who are never going to medal internationally still add value to Canadian swimming by increasing depth and motivating our best swimmers. While I appreciate the focus-driven approach of top coaches that are preparing the fastest in Canada for peak performance, the big picture should always be considered. CIS swimmers that aren’t world-class are still training partners, competitors, and friends of our best swimmers, and their positive influence can make a huge difference. Why take the wind out of their sails?
CIS Swimming is too valuable to sacrifice.A common criticism I got for my last article was that most 25-year-old Olympic medallists were already top ten in the world at the age of 21. But my response is this: are you saying a swimmer is worthless if statistics indicate he or she isn’t going to medal at the Olympics? Using that logic, we could trace the improvement curve of all Olympic medallists back to age 10 and discourage all Canadians below the line, at any age, from continuing to swim. I think we can agree that probably wouldn’t be healthy for the sport. Canada needs to build depth in swimming by encouraging involvement and generating enthusiasm – these are things a healthy university swimming system can help accomplish. In my view, CIS swimming is too valuable to sacrifice; throwing it in the line of fire is not conducive to Swimming Canada’s long term development goals.
Why am I writing this article? I was never involved in CIS. I don’t even swim anymore. Regardless, I care deeply about my friends and past competitors that are still giving time and energy to the sport and whose opinions often go unheard. Yes, I’m presenting one side of the argument – this is an editorial – but it’s a side of the argument that deserves more attention. My goal is to simply relay discontent from the private domain to the public conscience in order to encourage open discussion. I want to see Canadian swimming excel. I don’t seek vengeance against Swimming Canada – I just feel that athletes should have input on decisions that affect them. How many CIS swimmers were consulted for their views on the policy changes? Many of the ones I’ve talked to are confused and offended. I hope their concerns are acknowledged.
What do you think of the recent and upcoming changes to CIS swimming? Comment below!
 There are two criticisms you could make here, the first being that maybe she would have swum even faster at Olympic Trials had she prepared less for CIS. But how could you know that? Dealing in hypotheticals is unproductive because there are too many factors at play. The second criticism is that there are plenty of examples of instances swimmers were unable to reproduce fast times at a second meet. That’s true – our national team generally swam faster at Commonwealth Games than it did at Pan Pacs nearly a month later (though there are counter examples and the poor conditions in Australia should be taken into account.) I’m sure you could find lots of evidence to support the argument that you can’t double-taper, but the point is, there is lots of evidence that shows you can. That’s why I take issue with the carded-swimmers-aren’t-allowed-to-shave-at-CIS mandate. I will also add that practicing a double-shave, double-taper between CIS and Trials could be beneficial for top swimmers that have to do it between international competitions, like this past summer. Next summer, those competing at both Pan Am Games and World Championships could theoretically have nearly 4 weeks between swims. John Atkinson said in an email that swimmers should be double shaving for summer focus meets, so why ban them from practicing it between CIS and Trials beforehand?
 Obviously FISU selection only occurs every second year, when the games are held.
 I’d like to hear the reasoning behind these proposed changes. In my experience (2009 and 2011 FISUs), swimmers had to pay their own way to the games, with some potential assistance from universities. Is Swimming Canada going to pay to send its swimmers next year? If not, what’s the reasoning for reducing the size of the team and making selection tougher? I think most swimmers that have attended World University Games will tell you how valuable an experience it was.