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Taylor Ruck Gives Canadian Swimming a Glimpse into the Future

GOLD COAST, Australia — When Taylor Ruck wants to reminisce about the 2018 Commonwealth Games, it won’t be hard to do.

The 17-year-old Canadian swimmer will have a shiny souvenir from each of the eight events she entered at the Gold Coast Aquatics Centre, and will also have her name in the Commonwealth Games record books.

After anchoring the Canadian women’s 4×100-metre medley relay team to a silver Tuesday, Ruck earned a piece of the single-Games record for medals won by any athlete, from any country, in any sport. She shares it with three swimmers: Canada’s Ralph Hutton (1966) and Australians Susie O’Neill (1998) and Emily Seebohm (2010).

Ruck is also now the most decorated Canadian female athlete ever at a single Commonwealth Games. That mark had stood for 52 years, since fellow swimmer Elaine Tanner won seven in 1966.

Ruck may have had certain targets in mind when she got here, but eight medals was not one of them.

“Not in my wildest dreams,” she said. “This meet has been fantastic for Team Canada and I’m just so happy to be able to share so many experiences with my best friends.”

Ruck’s tally includes three medals as part of Canadian relay teams and five from individual events — tops among them a gold won with a Games-record time in the women’s 200-metre freestyle, where she bested world-class talents like Australia’s Ariarne Titmus and fellow Canadian Penny Oleksiak.

Here’s the breakdown of Ruck’s sack of medals:

Gold: 200m freestyle
Silver: 50m freestyle
Silver: 200m backstroke
Silver: 4×100 freestyle relay
Silver: 4×200 freestyle relay
Silver: 4×100 medley relay
Bronze: 100m backstroke
Bronze: 100m freestyle

So now that the teenage sensation has arrived on the world stage, many are wondering: where did she come from?

A star is born

Canadian sports fans may remember Ruck as part of the Canadian 4×100 and 4×200 freestyle relay teams that captured bronze medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But her swimming success story began just after she was born in Kelowna, B.C., in 2000.

Her parents, Sophia and Colin Ruck, relocated to Scottsdale, Ariz., when Taylor was just an infant, and it was there that she took like a duck to the water.

Flash forward to 2015, when she made her first big splash at the world junior championships in Singapore, winning three gold medals, a silver and two bronze. Two years later, at the 2017 world juniors in Indianapolis, she won six gold medals (including one individual, in the 200 free) and added a silver in the 100 backstroke.

After her relay success in Rio, she decided to move back to Canada in 2017 to train full-time.

Colin Ruck says his daughter’s decision to leave home was difficult, but her personality and dedication made it the right move.

“She’s fun, smart, precocious — she’s highly regimented and has always been a hard worker and I think all of that added up to why she was ready to leave home a year early,” he says. “That was tough on our family because we’re a tight-knit family, but it was her decision to leave home and go to Toronto and we supported it as a family because we thought she might be ready and it’s worked out pretty well so far.”

It was a tough call for Taylor, too.

“It was pretty hard, but I have a lot of support from my teammates and my family and my coaches,” she says. “So that definitely made the move a bit easier and I think the success of moving there has been shown off at this meet.”

Coming-out party

Ruck’s coach, Ben Titley, says she has shown here in Australia that she was ready to take the next step in her career.

“Sometimes young people doubt themselves, sometimes they don’t know how to act in certain situations. But I’ve been very, very impressed with how Taylor’s learned from each experience she’s been faced with,” Titley says. “[She’s] handled it with a poise and a determination, race after race after race, medal after medal, and day after day with a determination that’s impressive for anybody, let alone a 17-year-old.”

While some took notice after her two relay medals in Rio, Swimming Canada high-performance director John Atkinson says these Commonwealth Games were Ruck’s coming-out party, and the lessons she’s learned here will serve her well at the next Olympics in Tokyo.

“The experience somebody will get at these Games — doing individual events, relays, village life — can’t be underestimated,” Atkinson says.

It’s also the latest indicator that she’ll be a force in the pool for years to come.

“It is early, but certainly when you look at her career from 2015 at the world juniors, Olympics, world juniors again last year and now Commonwealth Games… she certainly has a very bright future ahead of her and right now [it’s important to] just keep focusing on improving,” Atkinson says.

Pressure’s on

Canadian Kylie Masse also sees great things on the horizon for her teammate.

“Taylor is swimming incredibly,” says the world champion and world-record holder in the 100-metre backstroke. “She has swam so many races and has done well in every single one of them. She has a big future ahead of her. It’s awesome for Canadian swimming.

“I’m super happy and excited for what’s to come.”

Titley agrees that Ruck’s success is important to the Canadian team.

“Taylor setting that tone and culture is a big thing,” he says.

The pressure may build on Ruck as the Tokyo Games approach, but Titley says she has all the tools to be one of the world’s best in her sport. It’s just a matter on how she develops while dealing with expectations and external pressures.

“She has all the capabilities to be one of the world’s greatest swimmers,” he says. “What she’s done here this week… is one of the most impressive things that I’ve seen.

“Down there on the poolside it’s 35 C in the sun when its blaring in the morning. Come the nighttime, it’s been raining, it’s been cold, it’s been windy. The extremes and the differences that those young people have to face here [in an] outdoor meet in Australia, that’s only going to be a positive thing to set them up going forward.”

The next chapters

Being proclaimed the future of Canadian swimming is a heavy burden to shoulder, but it should help that Ruck is surrounded by other young talent like Masse and Oleksiak, the teenage sensation of the 2016 Olympics.

“[Taylor]’s important and we have a good group around her, so that pressure is spread across the team rather than just on one individual,” Atkinson says.

Ruck also has a support team in place to help her deal with this newfound stardom — chief among them, her parents.

Sophia, a former swimmer, and Colin, who played junior hockey in the WHL, were here in the Gold Coast to watch their daughter compete and support her in any way they could. That included cheering Taylor on during her 200m final win, and afterwards when Prince Charles placed the gold medal around her neck.

“That was crazy because I remember being a kid and watching the royal wedding, so to think he gave Taylor her medal was mind blowing,” Sophia says.

While the Commonwealth Games will be full of memories for Ruck, the future, not the past, seems to be where the Canadian swimming phenom is directing her attention as both college life and the 2020 Olympics beckon.

That means there won’t be much time to bask in the success, at least right now. Ruck has committed to Stanford University in California for the fall, and she has an online high school exam to take Wednesday — something her father would like to speak to her about now that her Commonwealth Games are over.

“She’s going to university in September, so she’s gotta do well in school. She’s been down [in Australia] for at least three weeks, so I’d like to actually talk to her about that,” Colin says with a laugh.

Hey, even eight-time Commonwealth Games medallists have to pass English.

Story and Photo: CBC Sports