The University of Toronto Varsity Blues men's and women's swimming teams headed over the pond last week for a dual meet with the top university team in Britain, Loughborough University. They fell narrowly to the British, but head coach Byron MacDonald was pleased nonetheless.
Varsity Blues swimmers going into battle (photo by Martin Bazyl)
"This was a big initiative and I thank the Loughborough folks for getting onboard to help make it happen," he said. "I am always looking for new ways to enrich the swimmers’ experience and to test them and this certainly fit the bill. Most of our swimmers had never been to England and certainly have never raced any of these athletes. It was a great experience all around."
The foundation for the meet was laid several years ago due to the connection between MacDonald and a couple of top British coaches, who had coached at Loughborough prior to coming to Canada.
"This is a very special meet because I don't believe any swim team from North America has ever done a dual meet with a European university," said MacDonald, now in his 41st season as Blues head coach. "It pits the top university team in Britain against us, perennially one of the top programs in Canada."
The current Loughborough coach, Andi Manley, was in Canada a few years ago as the national youth centre coach, based at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre pool at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. Once he returned to England, discussions began about having the two universities engage in a competition.
In 2017-18, the two teams competed in a virtual meet with both squads racing the same weekend and comparing results.
"The idea was that we would try to enact a four year plan," said MacDonald. "Virtual meets in the fall of odd years and on-site meets in the even years. U of T chose to be the first to travel and that’s how we ended up at Loughborough for this historic meet. This is the furthest that we have travelled as a team to a meet for sure. We have done dual meets as far away as Vancouver and Las Vegas, but not 'over the pond'."
The Blues left for Britain on Wednesday night, with the meet set for Saturday afternoon, local time.
"It was a tough challenge. When the Olympic team travels to European meets they go at least two weeks early to acclimatize, so this was a very quick and challenging turnaround."
Still, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and 2017 FINA world champion Kylie Masse continued her winning ways, placing first in three individual races.
"We swam Kylie in the 400 freestyle event because we had an opening and thought it would be a good challenge since she has only done it once before. Her performance was nothing short of amazing with a best time by five seconds and going one of the fastest ever done by a Canadian," said MacDonald.
Masse won her signature 100 backstroke event in 57.40 seconds and the 200 backstroke in 2:04.04.
"I am proud of how well the swimmers swam with such a short time to acclimatize," said MacDonald. "We were only here for 48 hours prior to the meet, which is really short for a time change adjustment. That, on top of a long travel day with an eight-hour flight, followed by a four-hour bus ride to get on site"
The women finished off the meet with a bang, as rookies Rebecca Smith, Ainsley McMurray and Aleksa Gold finished 1-2-3 in the 200 freestyle.
Smith is a world championship and Commonwealth Games relay medalist but has been unable to kick in training for a month due to a stress fracture in her foot.
"She did amazingly well considering the injury and now she is almost back to health so she can continue to move her career forward," said MacDonald.
Smith also won the 200IM in 2:11.47 and was just out-touched for gold in the 100 butterfly by the British junior record holder. Hannah Genich and Georgia Kidd also went 1-2 in the women's 200 butterfly.
In men's action, Cam Kidd continued to reap the rewards of a better training regime this year, topping the British junior record holder in the 50m sprint in 22.18 seconds. Osvald Nitski, who had to delay his trip by a day to write two midterms, won the 200 butterfly in 2:01.54.