TOKYO—The three fastest women in the world went into the water within a hair’s breadth quiver of each other.
The three fastest women in the world came out of the water 1-2-3.
Silver for Canada’s Kylie Masse in the 100-metre backstroke. Though it took a new Olympic record of 57.47 from Australian Kaylee McKeown to beat her for the top podium. With American Regan Smith earning bronze.
That’s drama: The three fastest women in the world, ever, in the pool together at the same time in the same race.
Each having earlier this week shaved a sliver of a microsecond — measured in hundredths of a second — off the existing Olympic record.
All three world podium polished in global competition.
Kylie, Kaylee, Regan.
Two-time and reigning world champion Masse actually broke the Olympic record (as it had stood) as well on Tuesday morning here: 57.72, that mark established by Smith just a day earlier in their heats.
“I’m happy with it,” Masse said after the medal ceremony in the mixed zone. “I upgraded from 2016, so I’m really happy with that. It was an incredibly challenging and talented field of backstrokers that have been swimming crazy fast this whole year, so I knew it was going to be a battle.”
Kylie-Kaylee-Regan: It’s almost sing-song, so often are they tri-yoked together, the backstroke triumvirate.
Masse attacked the first 50 and led at the turn. “Coming into this race, it was a three-set process, from prelims to semis to finals. I was trying to stay calm and controlled through prelims and into the semis. Then for finals, I just wanted to go out and leave it all in the pool.
“I knew I had that front-end speed and I wanted to start off with a bang.”
Her fastest split ever, too.
For Canada, a fifth Olympic medal, third silver and third circular pendant derived from the pool, after Maggie Mac Neil’s gobsmacking gold in the 100-metre butterfly on Monday, and the 4×100 freestyle on Sunday.
“Watching Maggie yesterday was so incredible and inspiring and I was so fired up. I was telling myself I need to calm down, calm down, for (my) semifinals.”
Just one straining reach of the arm behind McKeown for Masse. And the Australian has had a lot more time in the pool bracketing a pandemic than the Canadian.
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It required ingenuity during stages of the on-and-off lockdowns in the province. For Masse, swimming out of the varsity squad at the University of Toronto, that meant — when the pool was shut down in the first wave last year and no group training permitted — moving back into her parents’ house in hometown LaSalle, Ont., with its backyard pool.
Soon as the weather warmed up enough, Masse cleverly fashioned a swimming harness that tethered her to the property’s fence, enabling her to swim “static,” keying on alleviating resistance in the water, in jury-rigged fashion. “As soon as you get in the water, there’s resistance.” Not as good as proper distance laps and accurate split times, but it did in a pandemic pinch.
On a powerful Canadian team that was looking to equal if not better its six-pack of medals from Rio, Masse — who won one of those — is the veteran and just 25 years old, though likewise in only her second Olympics, like most of that repeat cohort, circa 2016. “We want to be in the hunt with the best in the world.”
They very much have been that through the early stages of competition inside the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
Collectively, the distaff side of the Canadian swim team conduct themselves with cool poise, like they’ve been here before, you know? As if there’s not a massive burden of expectations, a nation’s hopes, dropped on their broad shoulders. “I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure,” Masse had said. “We obviously know the success we’ve had.”
A third of the way through a half-dozen chunks of precious metal before Masse reverse-stretch-arced out of the blocks on Tuesday morning, emerging from the plunge and trying to stay as close to the surface as possible, again to limit that resistance. Stay small on the turn, shrink yourself, then build a head of steam to power through the closing 20.
“My strength is my closing speed. It’s the thing I’ve always been most confident of, something I work hard to maintain and get faster at.”
She had watched from afar as other countries, most especially Australia, crawled out of lockdown far earlier than Canada, which allowed them to train furiously in advance of Olympic trials last month — lots of trash-talking, too, coming from the women of Oz.
“Having watched but not being able to compete against them was so motivating to me,” said Masse, acknowledging that she hadn’t be in the least bit surprised by the blistering new world record time set by McKeown.
Masse had, in heats on Sunday, established— fleetingly — a new Olympic record herself, 58.17 in this event, only to see rival Smith just minutes later set it anew at 57.86.
She was satisfied, if maybe not quite over a golden moon.
“I went my second-fastest time that I’ve ever gone, and I have to be happy with that. I’m proud of that in an Olympic final,” said Masse. “After such a crazy year. You can’t be too hard on yourself.”
The Aussies, yes, have been in the pool through much of the last 18 months, while Canadians struggled to train until the facilities were reopened. “I don’t want to think about that too much,” said Masse, reluctant to be drawn into what-ifs. “Everyone’s faced challenges this year, some more than others. I don’t want to ever use that as an excuse.
“I’m really happy to have gotten my hand on the wall second tonight.”
Masse will also contest the 200-metre backstroke and the individual medley relay, perhaps even the mixed medley relay, which hasn’t been named yet.
That backstroke churn followed the semifinals in the women’s 200-metre freestyle. Penny Oleksiak qualified sixth for Wednesday’s final, but 14-year-old Summer McIntosh didn’t make the cut.
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno
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