Ryley McRae’s swimming technique was deconstructed last month — criticized, eviscerated and redesigned.
The 16-year-old Sa-Hali secondary student’s introduction to the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre in Victoria was sobering, an unexpected beginning to his tenure with the junior national team, known officially as the National Development Team Program.
“While I was there, they really keyed in on what I was doing wrong instead of what I was doing right,” McRae said. “It definitely made me feel sort of small, which probably, in the end, was a good thing. It just gives me drive to become better.
“They might have made me feel like I was slow and worked me to the end, but the one thing I took away is if my stroke is as bad as they said it was, there’s lots of room for improvement.”
McRae burst onto the national team radar and into the conversation for the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo at the Canadian Junior Championships in Toronto in the summer.
He blew away the competition in the 16-and-under 1,500-metre freestyle, winning gold with a time (15:35.87) that ranked 11th in the world among swimmers 18 and under.
Kamloops Classic Swimming head coach Brad Dalke said McRae’s inclusion to the national junior swimming team, a designation that became official last month, comes with perks such as top-tier coaching and funding — and it signals the start of the stretch drive toward 2020.
“Pretty much, in that one-week time period, they ripped everything apart in the first couple days,” Dalke said. “Since then, it’s given us a platform to start analyzing things and building going forward.
“Right now, we’re trying to work on getting that stroke technique down pat, trying to be a little bit more efficient, so we can have fewer strokes over a 1,500-metre swim, but be able to swim way faster.”
The Classics have spent the last 12 weeks in a cycle of preparation that ends with the 25th annual MJB Law Classic, which runs from Dec. 15 to Dec. 17 at the Canada Games Aquatic Centre.
Most of the club’s swimmers will be shaved and tapered for that event, essentially meaning they will be ready to peak, but McRae is not on the same training plan.
The MJB Law Classic will be important for him, as it will be the first real test of his new stroke, but he is ramping up for the next biggest moment of his young career, his first time representing Canada in international competition.
McRae and three Swimming Canada teammates of similar age will travel to South Africa for the the Midmar Mile, a 1.6-kilometre race recognized as the largest open-water swimming event in the world.
“I think I’m going to swim really fast,” said McRae, who turns 17 later this month. “Being my first time representing Canada, I think I’m going to be really excited about that. It’s a whole new thing to me, but I’m not going to let that get me down.”
The Midmar Mile in Pietermaritzburg will cap a two-week camp that includes a week of training in Durban.
For McRae and his teammates, the trip is a chance to compete against each other in front of national team coaches, knowing there are only so many spots available on Team Canada for the Olympics in the distances in which they specialize.
“I’ve competed against all of them,” he said. “We know each other.
The 800-metre distance will make its Olympic debut in men’s competition in 2020, a good thing for swimmers of McRae’s ilk, as it opens up another option for qualification.
“This whole ordeal, what the distance coaches are trying to do, is basically trying to make their Canadian men’s team better,” said McRae, whose bread and butter remains the 1,500m.
“Right now, our women’s team is really good, but our men’s team isn’t as good. This whole South Africa thing is really to pave the path for the upcoming generation of men’s swimmers in Canada.”
The Grade 12 student has plans to pursue a career in engineering.
In the summer, he told KTW the University of Denver or University of Toronto were on his list of potential schools, but the agenda seems to have changed and become more swimming-centric in the short-term.
He may stick around Kamloops for two years, rack up credits at Thompson Rivers University and focus on the pool, with an eye on transferring to the University of Victoria.
More pressing than decisions on school is his timeline for qualifying for the 2018 Junior Pan Pacific Championships, scheduled to run from Aug. 23 to Aug. 27 in Fiji.
“Everything we are doing is getting ready for trials, which are in April in Montreal,” Dalke said. “That’s what we’re working toward.”
McRae, who finished a whopping 22.32 seconds ahead of the silver medallist in the 1,500m at nationals, is likely to qualify for Pan Pacifics, at which he may even be among the favourites.
One bad swim at trials in April could change all that, but he won’t be focused on the negatives when race time is minutes away.
“I have a playlist that I listen to and I do my specific warm-up and actually sort of get away from everyone, get into a quiet space, and really focus on how I’m going to swim the race,” McRae said.
“There is some classic rock on there, some indie rock and a lot of System of a Down. It gets my heart rate up and I get almost angry a little bit.”
Those in Kamloops interested in seeing what the fledgling athlete’s pre-swim routine looks like should show up to the pool next weekend.
They might be catching a glimpse of a future Olympian.