In her first Olympic appearance at Rio 2016, Kylie Masse was the hunter and came away with a bronze medal in the 100m backstroke.
Four years later, she’s preparing to head to Tokyo 2020 as the hunted, having won back-to-back world titles in her specialty event in 2017 and 2019. And, oh yeah, she was also the world record holder for a year.
Of course, like all Team Canada athletes, Masse’s summer did not play out as she had meticulously planned.
“We really have the years scheduled out in quads and we know ahead of time which meets we’re going to, when we’re going on training camps and all that sort of stuff. And all of that is up in the air right now, so it’s definitely strange,” Masse recently told Olympic.ca of the impact COVID-19 continues to have on her Olympic preparations, with the Games now postponed to 2021.
In mid-March, she had been just a couple weeks away from competing at the national trials where her spot on the Olympic team would be confirmed.
And then everything changed, starting with the postponement of the trials.
“Our coach said ‘Look, everyone take the weekend off and we’ll come back on Monday. The virus is going on, take care of yourselves, we obviously aren’t preparing for trials in two weeks anymore, so everyone just take the weekend off, we’ll come back on Monday.’ And then, the following day, our facilities were shut down.”
What’s a swimmer without water to do?
For the first week, she stayed in Toronto, going on bike rides and long walks to stay active as best she could. She then decided to go home to LaSalle, near the Detroit River in southwestern Ontario, for a few days, “maybe a week at most”, to spend time with her parents.
She stayed for over three months.
“I actually took summer school for the first part of quarantine, so that kept me pretty busy which was nice, and then I didn’t have a lot else to do. Swimming is my whole schedule, so I was kind of lost at some points. I had made a little veggie and herb garden with my dad and spent a lot of time building that and getting the plant seeds and just maintaining that. I tried to do some cooking and really just enjoy the time spending with my family and being at home.”
Masse now has just two courses remaining in her kinesiology degree at the University of Toronto. Unlike many high-performance swimmers, she chose to stay in Canada rather than attend an NCAA school.
“Growing up so close to the States I think I was heavily influenced to go to the States and a lot of swimmers on my club team before me had gone to the States,” Masse reflected. “I went on four official recruit trips and then I decided to visit both UBC and U of T in Canada. […] I wanted to ensure I was going to a school with good academics, as well as athletics, and after visiting U of T, I really enjoyed the atmosphere and I saw the resources available and great coaching staff and team. It wasn’t too far from home for me, it wasn’t too close, so it kind of was the perfect fit.”
As one of the most accomplished veterans on the national team, Masse also did her best to keep swimmers spread across the country connected, offering up opportunities for virtual workouts and other video chats.
“Swimming is an individual sport, but it’s so much a team sport as well and you rely so much on the environment that you’re in in order to push yourself, so I found that difficult when I had to train alone,” said Masse. “I think everyone’s realized how important the social interaction is and how much you require that when it’s taken away from you.”
At the end of June, she finally got back in the pool.
“I was so excited to get back in. I think I was kind of nervous just to see what it felt like because we had such a long break and that’s so foreign in our sport to have that long of a break,” said Masse. “Having seven days off, your feel for that water is so different, so having months off, I was worried. But it honestly was just so nice to be back in the water and it felt so good.”
Read on for more from Masse as she answered our questions about being a Team Canada model, her greatest accomplishment, swimming against men in a new Olympic event, and her favourite out-of-water activity.
Q: You recently had the chance to model the Tokyo 2020 team kit from Hudson’s Bay. As a fan of fashion, what were your first impressions?
A: When I first saw the jean jacket I was like ‘Wow’. I think it really encompasses Canada, just that whole Canadian tuxedo. [… ] I think it’s unique and really special and obviously, it looks like it has a lot of memories before it even does have a lot of memories, if that makes sense. It looks like a special piece before you even get to wear it in the Closing Ceremony.
Q: Was it easier or harder than you expected to strike the right pose?
A: I always have a hard time doing a straight face. I think that’s not really me and my personality, so I always have to be really focused to have that determined kind of look on my face.
Q: There is a saying that it’s easier to win a title than to defend a title. Does that ring true to you?
A: I think so yeah, definitely a little bit. I think it’s easier to be chasing then to be on top, but it’s crazy because obviously I work so hard in order to stay on the top. […] I think 2017, I was more just in the moment. I was enjoying just swimming fast and giving everything my best shot and in 2019, I felt more pressure and expectations. Over the years, I’ve learned how to – and I’m still learning how to – cope with that and really just focus on myself because I look back on the 2017 performance and I just think how excited I was to swim and how I wasn’t thinking about anything else. So I constantly remind myself that it’s important to just be in the moment and really enjoy the experience and let your body do what it knows how to do and not get too caught up in the external pressures and expectations and media and things like that.
Q: World record holder or Olympic medallist or world champion. Which of those do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far and why?
A: I’m definitely really proud of all of them, but probably world record holder. I think that’s something a bit more rare than any other ones and I think it’s really cool to look back on and know at one point, I was the fastest in history in that event.
Q: How bad do you want the world record back?
A: Very badly. I try not to fixate on times too much and I think I know that I can improve so much and how much to improve and that’s really motivating for me to just continue to work hard and see how fast I can push myself.
Q: The mixed medley relay will be new to the Olympic program at Tokyo 2020. What is it like to swim directly against men?
A: It’s pretty crazy honestly. The first time I did it in 2017 was quite wild and fun, but I think in that event you really have to just focus on yourself and focus on your length because you could have a male swimmer who’s six seconds faster than you.[…] Fortunately for me, being on my back, I can’t really see what else is going on until the turn, so it’s usually not until the end I realize I was so far behind the guy next to me. But I think it’s really cool, it’s a fun event and to be able to be in there with two men and a woman is crazy and very new to the sport, so it’s fun.”
Q: You have said before how much you love coffee and coffee shops. What is your go-to order and where is the best coffee in the world?
A: Best coffee in the world, I would have to say Australia, I think. Australia or Italy. My go-to order changes depending on my mood, depending on what’s happening. I love a latte, I like iced or hot; americano, cappuccino. Usually I switch it between those as like a standard drink and if I wanted to go with something fancy, like a macchiato or something like that. I would say latte is probably my most ordered.
Q: Yay or nay on pumpkin spice lattes?