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Uncertain status of Canadian swim stars creates relay dilemma for coaches ahead of world championships

Mar 13, 2023

Four-time Olympic medallist swimmer Taylor Ruck has decided to withdraw from an international event in Santa Clara. Calif.

This comes a day after Swimming Canada officials told CBC Sports they were optimistic Ruck was returning to racing after breaking her hand in April. Ruck had planned on swimming four events this weekend.

In a statement, Swimming Canada said Ruck made the decision to withdraw from the event in consultation with her coach, Greg Meehan, and high-performance director John Atkinson.

"I had hoped to return to racing this weekend but need a little more time to focus on my recovery," Ruck said.

Ruck has been mostly kick training since suffering a broken hand while skateboarding in April. She will continue to train and rehab the injury, while finishing her final exams at Stanford University.

WATCH | Taylor Ruck opens up about mental health struggles:

"While Taylor has been making good progress, with any return many things have to be considered," Atkinson said in a statement. "While the plan was to race at Santa Clara, after a review this will not happen. Taylor will continue to work with her coach at Stanford and we will plan to meet next week."

That will be a pivotal meeting about whether Ruck can be ready to race again with the clock ticking down to the world championships in Fukuoka, Japan, starting July 23.

A couple of weeks ago Canada's most decorated Olympian, Penny Oleksiak decided not to attend the world championships to continue her rehab from injury. And now there is a question mark regarding Ruck being able to compete at worlds.

"It's going to be tough this year," Atkinson said. "It's an opportunity for different athletes to step up and show what they can do and where they're at."

The absence of both presents some challenges for Swim Canada in how they structure the relay teams. In addition to their individual success, Oleksiak and Ruck have been an integral part of the relays since the Rio 2016 Olympics, when the two helped Canada to a bronze medal in the 4x100 freestyle.

Since then, they have been at the centre of some of the best performances in Canadian swimming relay history, contributing to six national records.

WATCH | Canadian women capture silver in 4x200m freestyle relay:

"We are aware that this year we will have some turnover," said Ryan Mallette, head coach of the Ontario high performance centre. "We weren't really counting on Penny and Taylor in 2016. We had this group of veterans and the two of them enhanced what we had," he said. "That was a pleasant surprise. Who's to say we can't do that again?"

That is the challenge facing Mallette, Atkinson and the Swimming Canada coaching staff.

"The perspective we're going in with all our relays is posting the best time we can possibly get because it's not just about the medals this year but also about getting that team qualified," Atkinson said. "While medals are always what people look towards, I'm looking at getting the best possible times with the athletes we got there and get those relays in position to qualify for the Olympics."

To add to the challenge, Kayla Sanchez is also out of the mix after opting to swim for the Philippines. Sanchez was part of the two fastest relays teams ever for Canada in both the 4x100m and 4x200m.

Atkinson said they have depth and talent and sees this as a real opportunity for other swimmers to be a part of something great, not just in Japan this summer but next summer as well at the Olympics.

"Every relay medal we've won has come from a team of women who have worked together," he said. "The jigsaw puzzle has to be completed by day one. You have a plan of how you're going to do it and as the meet goes on you adjust."

Sixteen-year-old Summer McIntosh, who set two world records at the Canadian trials in April, will no doubt play a big role in the relays, but how much she's able to do will have to be balanced with an individual schedule that could see her swimming five events.

"You're not going to be able to race prelims and finals on every relay and prelims, semis and finals for all individual races. Whether it be Summer or anyone else, it's about a balance," Atkinson said.

That said, there has been clear communication with McIntosh's coach Brent Arckey about what they hope she's able to do in Japan during worlds.

"I don't want anything to be a surprise to Brent or Summer. Nothing will be a surprise," Mallette said.

A team of 30 Canadians swimmers will leave for Japan at the beginning of July. They will be centralized in Toyota, Japan for a week-long training camp before leaving for Fukuoka ahead of the world championships. Competition begins on July 23.

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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WATCH | Taylor Ruck opens up about mental health struggles: WATCH | Canadian women capture silver in 4x200m freestyle relay: