When Canadian divers, swimmers and water polo players headed to Fukuoka, Japan, 22 years ago to compete at the 2001 world aquatics championships, there was an understanding and acceptance that podium performances were probably going to be few and far between.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Athletes from Canada only ended up winning a total of five medals throughout the two weeks of competition — there were two diving medals, two synchronized swimming medals and the women’s water polo team won bronze.
Canadian swimmers failed to reach the podium.
But times have changed over the last two decades and now there are great expectations going into this summer’s worlds, led by a powerhouse team of 30 Canadian swimmers.
It’s also the first opportunity for athletes to qualify quota places for Canada at the Paris 2024 Olympics next summer. Athletes who place in the top-12 in the individual events and top-three in the synchro events at worlds will lock up spots for their country at the Games.
Mia Vallée, who trains in Miami but is originally from Beaconsfield, Que., was the standout Canadian diver in Budapest at the world championships last summer, surprising many by winning silver in the 3m event and bronze in the 1 m event. It marked the first time a woman finished on the podium in two individual events at the same world championships.
“I haven’t been feeling my best this year with all the pressure from my performance last year at worlds. I was this underdog and won these medals. It’s not easy, I’d never been under that much pressure,” Vallée told CBC Sports.
“Expectations. It’s mostly my own expectations. That pressure was eating at me.”
WATCH | Path to Paris, featuring Canadian diver Mia Vallée:
Vallée is trying to find some of that same calm and fun she had at last year’s worlds to help her reach the podium again this summer.
“I would love to medal again. I think I do have a good chance in the 1 metre,” she said.
“I think I’m keeping expectations low and enjoying the moment.”
Vallée is teaming up with Pam Ware in the synchro event. They competed at the World Cup recently in Montreal and won bronze.
WATCH | Vallée, Ware claim bronze in Montreal:
The other Canadian medal at worlds last year came from the synchro duo of Rylan Weins and Nathan Zsombor-Murray. They captured bronze in the 10m synchro event, becoming the first Canadian men’s team to reach the podium in the platform event.
“We just clicked immediately. Last year was our first full year. Budapest was our second event ever and we won bronze. And then we won silver at the Commonwealth Games,” Weins said.
“It was an amazing year and we have our sights set on the podium again. Anywhere on the podium I’d be super happy with.”
Zsombor-Murray credits their friendship outside of the pool for allowing them to have undeniable chemistry when diving.
“We push each other and we’re getting better all the time,” he said.
Kate Miller and Elaena Dick are making their senior world championships debut in Fukuoka. Caeli McKay and Bryden Hattie are also part of the Canadian diving team heading to Japan.
For the first time ever Canada is sending five high divers to a world championship and there is a lot of optimism heading into the competition, led by Molly Carlson who is coming off a gold medal at the high diving world cup held in Fort Lauderdale in May.
Jessica Macaulay, who won bronze at the same event, Simon Leathead and Aimee Harrison will join Carlson at worlds.
WATCH | Canada’s greatest moments at the World Aquatics Championships:
Canada will have a male competing at worlds in high diving for the first time. Michael Foisy earned a last minute qualifying spot with a standout performance at the world cup in Fort Lauderdale.
Artistic swimming starts on day one of competition and runs through the first week of worlds. The Canadians are coming off a silver medal in the acrobatic routine to close out the World Cup super final in Oviedo, Spain at the beginning of June.
Water polo begins on the second day of competition and stretches to the second-last day of competition. The Canadian women open against Hungary while the men will play China in their first game.
This is a chance for Canada’s water polo teams to earn tickets to the Paris Olympics. It won’t be easy however, as only the finalists earn spots at the Games.
McIntosh leads swim team
That all leads to the big finish in the pool as the swimming competition takes the spotlight to close out worlds.
Many have said this is the golden generation for Canadian swimming with talent and depth unlike any other time in the program’s history.
The team is led by 16-year-old phenom Summer McIntosh who broke two world records along with five Canadian and world junior records during the trials this past April.
McIntosh will be joined by names like Maggie Mac Neil, Kyle Masse, Josh Liendo, Finlay Knox, Katerine Savard, Taylor Ruck and many others competing in the pool in Fukuoka beginning July 23.
WATCH | Swimming trials offered glimpse into ‘golden generation of swimming in Canada’: