There’s plenty of swimming to do around Australia in the Great Barrier Reef, but one former Vernon Kokanee swimmer will be preoccupied taking on Olympic champions.
Joe Byram is heading down under for the Pan Pacific Championships, Aug. 21-24, in Gold Coast, Aus.
The national program selected Byram following his third-place performance in the 100-metre backstroke, in 55.85 seconds, during the Canadian Swimming Trials at Victoria’s Saanich Commonwealth Place.
“It was a relief to make the team, but not a surprise. It is all part of my plan to get to 2016,” said Byram.
The six-foot Byram is training in Montreal with a few Pan Pacific teammates before he makes the 26-hour flight to Australia. He is getting his first taste at world class tutelage with coach Benoit Lebrun, one of the most experienced swimming coaches in Canada.
Lebrun has worked three Olympic Games, three Commonwealth Games and two world championships. He has also won seven provincial and two national coaching awards.
“I just met Joe yesterday. I first saw him in Victoria when he got named to the team, but right now we are getting acquainted with each other,” said Lebrun.
Lebrun has worked with some of Canada’s elite backstroke swimmers in the past. He worked the past five years with Charles Francis, who, under Lebrun, competed in the London Olympics and World Championships.
“Joe is going to gain a lot of experience from this event and that is what we are looking for on the developmental side,” said Lebrun.
Byram leaves Canada on Tuesday, arrives in Gold Coast on Thursday, with races beginning on the following Thursday. He will be competing in the 100- and 200-metre backstroke.
Canada is bringing 36 athletes, including London 2012 Olympic silver medalist Ryan Cochrane, who won silver in the 1,500-metre freestyle.
“Ryan has been a great influence on me. The swimming community is pretty small; we follow each others’ races all the time,” said Byram, who is majoring in political science at the University of Alberta.
Previous Olympic champions such as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte competed and won during the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, Calif.
“It’s not surreal for me to be racing guys I watched on TV when I was 10. To me they are just targets now,” said Byram.
The Americans are holding their qualifications this week in Irvine to see who will line up alongside Byram.
“It’s about racing the best swimmers out there. I raced Michael (Phelps) at an event last winter in California and it was terrible. I was way off his time,” said Byram. “It was just another experience for me to work towards my goal.”
For Byram, it is all about 2016 and Rio de Janeiro. He is working hard to crack the Olympic roster and fulfill his goal of bringing home a medal.
“It’s all about the development of athletes. Joe is in the right spot, at the right moment and the right age to build towards his goal of the 2016 Games,” said Lebrun.
This past season with the University of Alberta Golden Bears, Byram won Canada West silver medals in the 50, 100 and 200 backstroke, along with bronze in the 4×200 freestyle relay and the 4×100 medley relay. He also led the Bears to the CIS bronze medal in the 4×100 medley relay.
The Pan Pacific Championships are scheduled around Olympic and World Championship times and are for athletes bordering the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. lead the all-time medal count with 473. Canada is fourth with 112.