Top of the pool

By Orlagh O’Kelly

When Mike Blondal assumed a position as a coach for the University of Calgary swim team in 1989, the Dinos women had never won a championship banner. Fast forward 21 years; the Dinos swimming teams rewrote the history books this past weekend by winning the men’s and women’s national Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship banners for the first time at the University of Toronto.

On the men’s side, the Dinos were looking for redemption after suffering a nail-biting loss to the arch rival University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in 2009. They were poised and favoured to win the 2010 championships following a sound victory at the Canada West championships in Lethbridge last month.

“I thought we had a pretty reasonably chance,” said Blondal. “We had to keep our cool. We had to win because we earned [the championship], not because we deserved it, and we did earn it at the competition.”

Indeed, the men’s team were given a surprising battle by their hosts, the newly regenerated University of Toronto Varsity Blues. But after a big push on day three, Calgary finished comfortably ahead with 636.5 points over Toronto’s 551.

The victory culminated in the 200-metre individual medley where the team qualified four swimmers for the A final and two swimmers for the B final, earning a whopping 70 points in one of 18 events.

By all accounts, second-year Jason Block, a business student, was the Dinos standout who has stepped up as a young team captain. Block owned all three breaststroke events, finished sixth in the 200-metre individual medley brigade and helped the medley relay to a silver medal performance.

“Block stood out as a young upcoming breaststroker for Canada,” Blondal commented. “The times he performed without the bathing suits have not been produced by many [Canadians].”

Without the infamous high-tech, polyurethane-based swimsuits recently banned by FINA, swimming’s world governing body, the Dinos men depended instead on their numerous medal winners, including Colin Miazga, Ryan Gow, Dan Langlois, David Woodman, David Dimitrov and Bogdan Knezevic. For his bronze medal performance, Knezevic was rewarded with the CIS men’s rookie of the year, another first for a Dinos team member.

The victory was the Dinos’ 14th CIS men’s swimming championship, putting them two back of Toronto’s record 16 national championships.

On the women’s side, the team was looking to repeat their 2009 first ever championship win. The prospects were not as certain as the men’s, considering they had a disappointing loss at the Canada West championships. As Blondal said, “that’s what makes it sport; it is unpredictable. Someone is always out to uncrown you.” But Dinos team captain Katy Murdoch was confident.

“Even though we lost Canada West, it is a whole different competition because CIS has more depth in it,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch led the lady Dinos to another victory in 2010, topping the Thunderbirds by 140 points.

“It was awesome watching our team because it has progressed from a distant second to dominating national championships,” Murdoch enthused. “It was so cool to win for the first time and just as amazing this year to win with the men. Everyone stepped up.”

No one stepped up more than Olympian Erica Morningstar. The Calgary native dominated CIS competition, racking up seven gold medals and showing her versatility in the 200-metre individual medley and the 100-metre breaststroke. Morningstar also established yet another first, claiming the Sprinter’s Cup by winning both the 50- and 100-metre freestyle two years in a row. And, after two seasons, Morningstar is en route to becoming the most decorated CIS athlete in history.

“In two CIS, she has won 14 medals. She has not lost an event yet,” Blondal said.

To add an exclamation point to the weekend, Morningstar led the Dinos to a new Canadian record in the 4×100-metre medley, with Murdoch, Allison Long and Seanna Mitchell, again, a rarity without the banned suits.

But Morningstar could not carry the team alone. The way the point system is set up at the CIS championship, teams are rewarded for depth and not for having one star.

“[CIS] is our only chance as an individual sport to pretend that it’s a team sport,” Murdoch said.

Kevyn Peterson, Murdoch and Jessica Johnson, all members of Canada’s 2009 University Games team, brought home multiple medals for the Dinos. The rookie of the year honour also remained in Dinos territory for the fifth consecutive year, when Long sealed the honour with a gold medal performance in the 50-metre breaststroke.

“Allison had no fear going into the final,” Murdoch said.

From the vantage point of a graduating athlete, Murdoch acknowledged that the CIS championships allowed her to make the break to becoming, as she did last summer, a Commonwealth record breaker in the 100-metre backstroke.

“CIS was the first time that I’d ever gained a lot of confidence and it was a huge stepping stone for how well I did [last] summer,” she said.

Following the victories, team coaches Blondal and Jan Bidrman agreed to jump in the pool, as rules technically prohibit the swimmers from actually throwing them in.

In 1997, Blondal saw the men’s team win the banner and the women’s team come within 10 points of accomplishing the feat that was finally accomplished last weekend.

“It is those ups and downs along the way that got us here,” Blondal said. “Building a Foundation for Swimming Excellence, a proper recruiting program, a national centre come and gone. It takes a whole bunch of people to pull this off. It’s not just a coach and 40 swimmers. It also takes a coaching staff, the University of Calgary swim club, the Foundation and the university.”

The University of Calgary swim program’s support has finally allowed them to effectively “own the podium” in a varsity sport dominated by Olympians and world record holders.

Now, the team is hungry for another first: domination on home turf when the CIS championships comes to Calgary in 2011.