Canadian Swimmers Strike Out in Athens

RICK SAY didn't march out to the pool deck for the men's 200-m freestyle final. He sauntered. He drank in the packed crowd, the flags, the giant scoreboard that had his name alongside Australia's Ian Thorpe, U.S. phenom Michael Phelps and the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband. You could see his goofy grin from high in the stands.

In a black-and-red bodysuit, Say, a 25-year-old from Salmon Arm, B.C., gave Canada something to cheer about in one of the greatest Olympic swim races of all time - a head-to-head clash of the sport's biggest stars at these Athens Games. Starting in lane eight, the outside position reserved for the slowest qualifiers, Say came out strong - he was in third at the 50-m turn - but ended up sixth. In a frenzied finish, Thorpe powered home in an Olympic-record time of 1:44.71, with van den Hoogenband close behind, derailing the 19-year-old Phelps's quest to tie Mark Spitz's mark of seven swimming golds, set in 1972. Afterwards, a still-smiling Say made no excuses. What happened? "The best guys in the world went by me."

Unfortunately, that became the theme for Canada's performance in the pool, even in races where the field wasn't nearly so stellar. For the first time since 1964, the Canadian team failed to win a medal, making just three finals, with only two of its 20 members - Mike Brown in the 200-m breaststroke, and Nathaniel O'Brien (a Canadian by birth, but a product of the U.S. swim system) in the 200-m butterfly - posting personal bests. Billed as our best shot at a medal, the men's 4 x 200-m freestyle relay team - Say, Brent Hayden, Brian Johns, and Andrew Hurd - shaved more than 3.5 seconds off the Canadian record, but still finished fifth. Brown, who shattered the Canadian 200-m breaststroke record but still finished sixth in the final, said Canadians don't understand how hard it has become to reach the podium. "That breaststroke final was the fastest ever in history, by a large margin," says the 20-year-old from Perth, Ont. "Every ounce of energy I had is in that pool. I left it in there."

But there's a swelling chorus calling for a wholesale rethinking of Canada's swim system - our athletes need more money, better training and, above all, new leadership. "This is what I call rock bottom," says Mark Tewksbury, who won a backstroke gold and relay bronze in Barcelona. "It's frustrating to see so many other countries, on the day, pull it together, drop five seconds, get in there and win a medal." Tewksbury says there is a lack of accountability at Swim Canada, and that head coach Dave Johnson wields too much power. "We've watched the standards go from medals, to finalists, to personal bests," he says. "Come on, we're better than that."

Johnson, in charge of Canada's swim efforts since 1993, spent 45 minutes answering questions following the men's 4 x 200-m final, gamely trying to offer perspective. "Everybody's saying this could have been better, and that could have been better. But if you look at where we were ranked in the world before this meet, that's where we are." However, it seems unlikely he will keep his job. The Americans and Australians dominated in the pool, but there was still ample room on the podium, with 17 other countries, including Zimbabwe and Trinidad and Tobago, earning medals.

There was too much bad news, too many shattered swimmers, like Jennifer Fratesi. In her first Games, the 20-year-old from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., seemed a sure bet for the 200-m backstroke final, but fell an agonizing 2-100ths of a second short. "This is the Olympics. It's been my goal since I was six or seven years old. It's basically everything I've ever wanted," she said, choking back tears. "We have to change some things and figure out how to beat the rest of the world." Hopefully, someone's listening.

CANADA'S OLYMPIC SWIMMING RESULTS SINCE 1984

Gold Silver Bronze

Los Angeles* 1984 4 3 3

Seoul 1988 - 1 1

Barcelona 1992 1 - 1

Atlanta 1996 - 1 2

Sydney 2000 - - 1

Athens 2004 - - -

*Soviet bloc countries boycott the Games

Source: Canadaian Olympic Committee

See also OLYMPIC GAMES.

Maclean's August 30, 2004