OTTAWA (CIS) – The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds hope to defend the women's and men's team banners later this week when the top varsity swimmers in the country gather in Calgary for the 2013 CIS championships.
The three-day national meet, which kicks off the CIS winter championship season, runs from Thursday to Saturday at the University of Calgary Aquatic Centre, with preliminaries starting at 10 a.m. and finals at 6 p.m. Mountain Time daily.
In addition to CIS glory, Canadian athletes will also compete for a chance to represent their country internationally as the meet will serve as Team Canada tryouts for this summer's Universiade in Kazan, Russia (July 6-17). All Canadian gold medallists from the championships will automatically earn a spot on the world university games' squad.
The Thunderbirds returned to the top of CIS swimming a year ago after seeing their archrivals, the Calgary Dinos, claim five out of a possible six team titles from 2009 to 2011, including three straight women's crowns. Prior to Calgary's run, UBC had dominated nationally for a decade, sweeping the banners for 10 consecutive seasons from 1998 to 2007 and holding on to the women's title in 2008.
The two powerhouses, who have combined to win every CIS team banner except one since 1995 (Toronto women 1997), were at it again two weeks ago at the Canada West championships in Victoria, the T-Birds edging the Dinos on the women's side and Calgary returning the favour in the men's competition.
UBC goes into the CIS meet as the top-ranked women's team followed by Calgary, Toronto, Western and Montreal. Toronto tops the men's rankings, with Calgary, UBC, Laval and Western following in order.
On the women's side, UBC captured last year's CIS title with a record tally of 811.5 points and returns a formidable lineup highlighted by Olympians Savannah King, Heather MacLean and Tera van Beilen. King, a junior from Vernon, B.C., was the CIS rookie of the year two years ago and female swimmer of the year last season. She recently claimed her second straight Canada West MVP award.
Despite the loss to graduation of 2012 CIS male swimmer of the year Tommy Gossland, the T-Birds' men's squad is also in good hands and is led by fifth-year veteran Kelly Aspinall as well as newcomers Coleman Allen, a transfer from UNLV, and Luke Peddie, both of whom represented Canada at the 2012 world short course championships. Allen was named male MVP following his first appearance at the Canada West meet two weeks ago.
“Our teams are very well prepared and are eager to go after two more titles,” said UBC head coach Steve Price. “We are doing everything we can to ensure our team is prepared, including going to Calgary early to acclimatize to our new surroundings.”
“We are very strong on the women's side, as shown at the Canada West championships where we dominated, but there are a number of other good teams from across the country, including the host Dinos who have the luxury of home pool advantage. I expect our girls to step up and have an outstanding meet. On the men's side it will be a battle to the end between a number of talented schools, any of which could take home the championship. We will do our best and hope at the end of the day the points will work out in our favour.”
Host Calgary also boasts championship-caliber rosters that include the likes of returnees Amanda Reason, a 2012 Olympian, Lindsay Delmar, Jason Block, David Woodman, Bogdan Knezvic and Gleb Suvorov, as well as rookies Tianna Rissling, Russell Wood and Tomas Jobin.
The greatest contribution to the Dinos' success however could come from a swimmer who returns following a one-year absence from university competition, superstar Erica Morningstar. In three previous appearances at the CIS championships, the two-time Olympian, who took last season off to prepare for the London Games, has claimed 20 gold medals and one silver in 21 events and has guided the U of C women to three team titles. The native of Regina is a former CIS female rookie of the year (2009) and swimmer of the year (2011).
Home pool advantage – including altitude – was a factor when the national meet was last staged in Calgary in 2011 as the Dinos topped the women's standings by a commanding 130 points and won the men's race with a comfortable 50.5-point cushion.
“Both our men's and women's teams are ready and anxious to get racing,” said Dinos head coach Mike Blondal. “It's going to be great competing in front of our home crowd in our home pool. This is always the best competition of the season, and our team is really looking forward to competing this weekend.”
While the quest for the women's championship trophy is shaping up to be a two-team race between UBC and Calgary, the men's competition looks to be much more open, with contenders such as Toronto and Laval also in the mix.
The Varsity Blues men recently captured their 10th consecutive OUA banner with a remarkable 169-point advantage over Western. The top-ranked Ontario champs are led, among many standouts, by OUA MVP Zack Chetrat, who broke three meet records in as many events at the conference championships, and Luke Hall, a two-time Olympian for Swaziland in the 50-metre freestyle.
“The CIS championships are always the most exciting meet of the year and I'm sure this year will not be an exception. On the men's side, I expect it to be a major battle for the team podium between the three perennial powerhouses, UBC, Calgary and Toronto,” said U of T head coach Byron MacDonald, whose men's team finished only 11 points behind UBC at last year's national championship and is looking for its first CIS banner since 1994.
While the Blues women settled for second place behind Western at the OUA meet, MacDonald thinks his third-seeded squad has the potential for a top-three finish in Calgary.
“Despite the loss of some key swimmers to graduation last year, our two national champions, Andrea Jurenovskis and Vanessa Treasure, will lead the charge towards the podium.”
The Laval men are also hoping for a podium finish this week after taking their sixth straight RSEQ trophy. The Rouge et Or are led by veteran Dominique Massie-Martel, who represented Canada at the 2011 world championships, and Vincent Fontaine, named the Quebec conference male swimmer of the year thanks to his five medals at the RSEQ meet, including three golds and two silvers.
“We qualified 14 male swimmers for the national championships but we'll only have 13 athletes in Calgary as Maxime Jacomelli won't be able to join us due to personal reasons,” said Laval head coach Nicholas Perron. “It's a pretty big loss, especially for the relay events, but we're still aiming for podium finishes in the relays this week. Overall, we definitely want to place in the top five.”
The RSEQ women's banner went to the Montreal Carabins, while in the Atlantic conference, the Dalhousie Tigers swept the team titles for the 12th straight year.
Dalhousie teammates Katie Webster and Kyle Watson earned female and male MVP honours at the AUS championships. McGill's Katie Caldwell and Guelph's Alisha Harricharan were named female swimmer of the year in the RSEQ and OUA, respectively.