Ask Swimming Canada coach Ryan Mallette about a particular swimmer who will be competing at the upcoming world championships and this is how he sums up her achievements to date: “One of the most remarkable things that I have ever seen in swimming.”
He isn’t talking about Canada’s Olympic gold medallists, Penny Oleksiak or Maggie Mac Neil, great as they are. He’s talking about Kylie Masse.
She won three medals at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics and one at the 2016 Rio Games, but what really impresses Mallette is how long Masse has stayed at the top of the world in her event.
She has been on the podium in the 100-metre backstroke at every major event for six years.
The 2016 medal in Rio was bronze. In 2017, she became the first Canadian woman to win a world swimming title — in world-record time. She won the next year at the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships. In 2019, she was the first female Canadian swimmer to defend a world title. Then, after a pandemic delay, she won Olympic silver medals in the 100- and 200-metre backstroke and bronze in a relay in Tokyo.
“To be so consistent and reliable year after year, that’s what’s remarkable,” says Mallette, interim head coach at Swimming Canada’s high-performance centre at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.
Masse will be back in the pool, along with her Canadian teammates, at the FINA world championships in Budapest from Saturday until June 25.
Job one is trying to keep her world title in the 100, which is far from certain given she will be racing against the two fastest women in history. After that, the 26-year-old from LaSalle, Ont., will be in the hunt for medals in the 50- and 200-metre backstroke, and likely some relays.
To stay at such a high level for so many years takes talent, an incredible work ethic and a serious competitive streak. But a competitive nature is not what Masse, who is soft-spoken and quick to smile, is best known for. As Byron MacDonald, who coached her for years at the University of Toronto, puts it: “She’s simply the nicest woman on the planet … And because of that, I think she doesn’t necessarily get the credit for how hard she’s had to work to get where she is.”
While she may not wear her competitive streak on her sleeve, there’s no doubt it’s there.
“When I get in the water and any competitive environment, it just brings something out of me,” Masse says. “I’ve always been a competitive person deep down. I think that started from growing up and just playing sports … I have two siblings. We’re all 18 months apart, so being that close in age, at a young age, made me very competitive as well. But I like to keep that contextual and maybe just within swimming.”
One of the few times that people who know her well recall seeing Masse without a smile was when she first touched the wall in the 100-metre final in Tokyo — in second place. The world-record holder, Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, took the gold and American Regan Smith bronze.
Masse, McKeown and Smith are the only three women to break the 58-second barrier in the 100 backstroke, and they’ll face off again starting Sunday.
When Masse looks back on the Tokyo Olympics, she says she’s “very happy to have two silvers.” But one is clearly more satisfying than the other. “I am proud to have stood on the podium in the 200.”
She didn’t even make the Canadian team in that event for the previous Olympics, then swam a personal best to win that medal.
The 100, which she led until the closing metres, is a different matter.
“Obviously, I was a little bit disappointed. I feel like getting silver just stung a little bit,” she says. “But that’s our sport, and that’s just added fuel to the fire now for me going into this next quad, and for every year to come leading up to that.”
With a third world title in her sights and the 2024 Paris Olympics on the horizon, Masse says her motivation doesn’t come from a specific goal.
“I think when you’re so focused on defending a title or getting to a specific time, that can become very exhausting and overwhelming in your brain,” she says. “So I try and just make myself better each day, and continue to put in the work and trust the people around me. And really continue to enjoy the sport because, if I’m not enjoying it, then what’s the point of defending that title?”
Correction — June 16, 2022: This story has been updated from a previously published version to correct the surname of Swimming Canada coach Ryan Mallette.
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