Kylie Masse is on top of the swimming world.
Last July, she set a new world record en route to winning gold in the women’s 100-metre backstroke at the FINA world aquatic championships. She set the new mark in 58.10 seconds, breaking the longest-standing record in women’s swimming.
At Rio 2016, she swam to Olympic bronze in the same event before following that up with a silver in December at the short course worlds nearby her hometown of LaSalle, Ont.
But success hasn’t always come easy for the 21-year-old.
Three years ago, Masse was ranked 201st in the world in the women’s 100 back.
The following year, she failed to make Canada’s Pan Am squad after finishing third in the final at national trials.
It was a disappointing result for Masse after being the top qualifier, but one she looks back on as an important learning experience.
“In that trials race, I put too much pressure on myself and was overthinking things. I learned a lot about myself and channelling those nerves — making sure you’re not wasting energy on outside things you can’t control,” Masse said.
However, she didn’t dwell too much on it.
Three months later, she competed for Canada at the world university games which her coach, Byron MacDonald, referred to as the “B-team.”
He compared Masse’s setback to placing a candy in front of a person and pulling it away at the last second.
“I’ve seen that be a very difficult obstacle for some athletes to overcome in the past where they look like they’re going to make a team and then they don’t — their first team in particular — and then they have a hard time gaining the confidence back to get back into the fight,” said MacDonald, a CBC Sports swimming analyst and head coach at the University of Toronto.
The duo worked on the things that cost her a Pan Am berth — most notably her finish — and the result was a new personal-best time of 59.97 seconds — a half second faster than the trials.
Masse had never swam below a minute in the 100 back and doing so put her into elite category.
“From being unknown a year earlier when she was 200th in the world to top 10, it’s a big deal for an athlete to feel like they’re a player instead of being on the outside,” MacDonald said.
“Without the world student games, I don’t know if we end up where we’re at right now.”
Masse notes that moment as a turning point in her career and although she never paid much attention to the rankings at that time, it was clear she was no longer under the radar.
“It’s only now since that I look back on it and thought, ‘Wow! I’ve come a long a way.’ But I think that’s maybe part of just who I am,” Masse said.
“I love swimming and I love racing and I think that’s important to love what you do. So just enjoying the day in and day out training and competing has also allowed me to stay in the sport and have those goals.”
MacDonald won’t hold back on Masse’s training just because it isn’t an Olympic year.
He believes there’s still room for improvement and hopes to continue getting the best out of Masse.
But he isn’t the only one pushing the young Canadian.
Her national teammate, Hilary Caldwell, is a specialist in the 200 back but recently lost her national record last July to Masse — whose time of two minutes, 5.97 seconds in the semis at worlds — bested her previous mark by nearly a full second.
Masse also beat Caldwell at national trials ahead of the world championships.
“I didn’t like being out-touched [at the wall] because the 200 is my event,” Caldwell told CBC Sports before worlds on a conference call. “I have the Canadian record [2:06.80] and still don’t like to lose, but [Masse’s performance] was like lighting a fire under me.
“She’s definitely somebody, in terms of her power in the 100, that I’d like to emulate.”
But while Masse hopes to continue her ascent in another discipline, she considers Caldwell a great friend and is happy to swim alongside someone she looked up to.
Even with her world record, Masse isn’t ready to stop there.
For now, she’s the gold standard in the 100 back but knows all it takes is one race to erase her from the record books.
“Swimming is such a fast moving sport and people are always improving. There’s always someone new up and coming and you never know what people are going to race on that day,” Masse said.
The next Olympics are three years away but MacDonald said Masse is now “the hunted as opposed to the hunter” and challenges his pupil to keep it that way until Tokyo.
“Going into the world championships, they were already gunning for her and I’d say she handled it very well because she turned around and set the world record,” MacDonald said.
“As much as its changed, it already changed. So now the question is can you maintain that for three more years?”