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Athletes drove the choice of Toronto for swim trials, says Swimming Canada chief

Athletes in favour of Toronto as a Plan B for the Olympic and Paralympic swim trials drove the decision to relocate there from Montreal, says the head of Swimming Canada.
Maggie Mac Neil takes off from the start block on her way to winning the women's 100-metre LC butterfly at the Canadian swimming trials in Toronto on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Athletes in favour of Toronto as a Plan B for the Olympic and Paralympic swim trials drove the decision to relocate there from Montreal, says the head of Swimming Canada.

Toronto's Pan Am Sports Centre was built for the 2015 Pan American/Parapan American Games and was the site of Olympic and Paralympic trials in 2016 and 2021.

A tried and tested venue gave the athletes a sense of comfort amid the upheaval of trying to find an alternate location for the May 13-19 trials that will determine who goes to Paris this summer.

"The voice of the athletes from the beginning was about performance," Swimming Canada interim chief executive officer Suzanne Paulins said Tuesday in a conference call with media. "It was about coming to a pool that would give them that performance advantage, that edge, and Toronto's Pan Am pool was that choice."

Approximately 800 athletes from across Canada will compete at trials for the right to wear the Maple Leaf in Paris.

Montreal's Olympic pool was the original venue, but a March 21 fire at nearby Olympic Stadium, and subsequent smoke and water damage from firefighting, made air quality in the pool not fit for humans for four to six months, said Paulins and Quebec swimming federation head Francis Menard.

"They cannot offer a safe environment to make sure that the athletes can train and compete in a quality environment," Menard said.

When Montreal's Olympic Park made that announcement last week, Swimming Canada was left scrambling for another available venue in the May time frame, and one that had not only a 50-metre racing pool, but another warmup and cool-down pool, adequate capacity for spectators, accessibility for para athletes and broadcast and digital stream capabilities.

"The decision came down to our athletes and our athlete voice and their performance," Paulins said. "It really became about the fact that these athletes are looking to qualify for an Olympic and Paralympic spot and one one-hundredth of a second makes a difference.

"We really needed to ensure that we found a competitive environment that was going to allow them to realize their goals."

The financial investment of Montreal, the provincial government and Tourism Montreal, however, had Swimming Canada trying to keep trials in Quebec.

Montreal's Claude Robillard Sports Complex has a 50-metre pool, but not a second warmup and cool-down pool of that distance, and also had an artistic swimming event that ran up against the swim trials dates. Relocation to the University of Laval in Quebec City was also considered and discarded.

How much money Swimming Canada might lose, and what government bodies will pay for what was still to be determined, Paulins said.

When asked if the City of Montreal, Quebec government and Montreal Tourism board would financially support a trials in Ontario, Paulins replied "It has not been ruled out."

"We don't know exactly that loss yet," she said. "All of our funding partners have been working with us in order to minimize the impact, so we're hopeful at the end of the day, that it will be less of an impact."

Swimming Canada is offering assistance to athletes, coaches and officials seeking accommodation in Toronto or facing additional costs due to travel changes. Family members are not yet included in that assistance.

"Our focus is on our participants, athletes, coaches, officials, so that's our focus right now. We haven't ruled anything out," Paulins said. 

The national governing body of swimming says Air Canada will waive change fees and fare differences for those who booked flights to Montreal. 

Toronto was named late last year the site of the 2028 swimming trials for the Los Angeles Summer Games. 

Those trials can't be moved to Montreal because the Olympic pool is scheduled for major renovation then and would be unavailable, Menard said.

Ticket refunds in Montreal and a ticket campaign for Toronto are other major wrinkles in the relocation.

"Significant upheaval," Paulins said. "An event like this, trying to make all of the arrangements and do everything that we have to do in four weeks' time is basically where we're at." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2024. 

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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