Vernon Kokanee grad Joe Byram competes in a CIS dual meet between the University of Alberta Golden Bears and Calgary Dinos.

Vernon Kokanee grad Joe Byram competes in a CIS dual meet between the University of Alberta Golden Bears and Calgary Dinos.

New approach boosts Bears’ Byram

Vernon’s Joe Byram was one stroke away from going to world swim championships last April.

Vernon’s Joe Byram was one stroke away from going to world swim championships last April.

Byram, a third-year student with the University of Alberta Golden Bears, believes he has tweaked his training enough to make up that split-second gap at this year’s trials, April 2-5, in Victoria.

Working with Bears’ head coach Bill Humby, Byram, a backstroke specialist, has found a way to balance his weekly routine to ensure he gets full workouts without overdoing it. The new approach seems to be working for the Vernon Kokanee grad as he took silver in the 100-metre back and fourth in both the 50 and 200 back at the Canada Cup, in late November, in Toronto.

“So far, it’s huge gains from doing that,” said Byram, 19, who was fifth in the 200 backstroke at last year’s world trials. He was sixth in the 100 and eighth in the 50.

“We’re more rested, physically stronger and it’s benefitting us (Bears).

“I would get tired after a couple hard weeks of training. I can push myself through them, but if you ask me to race at a high level, meaning 98 per cent of my best times, I would laugh in your face.”

Said Humby: “We’re trying to spread out the work throughout the week a little bit better to balance it a little bit more. We’re trying to separate our strength training and dryland training from our swimming.

“We’re just getting better quality through all the work we do. This season, through the first cycle, it seems to have been pretty successful.”

One thing working in Byram’s favour is that there really is no frontrunner in any of his events. Aside from Ryan Cochrane, an Olympic medallist in the distance events, Canadian men’s swimming has fallen behind the world elite.

“It’s (backstroke talent) getting a lot deeper right now, but we’re all at a similar level,” said Byram. “There’s no superstar in my events. It’s all close.”

However, even if Byram does win at world trials, he isn’t guaranteed a berth due to recent changes in Swimming Canada’s selection criteria.

“The last couple of years it’s been if you get your hand on the wall first, you go,” said Byram. “They’re trying to add a little bit of an elite component to it so if you’re on the team, you’re competitive on the world stage.”

Before trials, Byram will turn his focus towards the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) championships, Feb. 20-22, in Toronto. He will be looking to erase the disappointment from last year where he managed a bronze in the 4x200m free relay.

Byram scraped himself up falling off a moped during a January training camp in Maui, which derailed workout schedule.

“It wasn’t anything serious, but I wasn’t at full training for two weeks,” said Byram. “I struggled partially due to that. I was really unsatisfied with my performance.”

Following CIS nationals, Byram rededicated himself for the six weeks leading up to world trials where he redeemed himself in a big way.

“I swam the best I’ve ever done, either short course or long course, and that was a long-course meet, which is something I’ve always struggled with. It was really the first time I had satisfying performances.

“It was really due to that six weeks. I turned things around and got my head back into it. Those were the performances that got me carded (by Sport Canada).”

As a carded athlete, Byram receives funding, which helps cover expenses.

“It’s nice to have a little bit of income to make trips and help with schooling,” said Byram. “It makes it easier for me to make swimming my job. At the level I’m trying to compete at, it’s pretty difficult to have a summer job. With training demands, it’s hard to work nine-to-five.”

Byram represented Alberta at the Canada Games this summer in Sherbrooke, Que., where he won gold in the 200 back and silver in both the 50 back, 100 back and a relay event.

Byram credits his parents, Ken and Ellen, for instilling a solid work ethic in both he and younger brother Eric, who is a rising prospect with Cross-Country Canada’s nordic program.

“We were raised that it’s hard work, but also that it’s smart work,” said Joe. “My parents have done a great job of making sure we’re dedicated to what we do. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it well.

“And we like what we do. If I don’t enjoy going to the pool, or Eric doesn’t enjoy going out for a ski, why are we doing it? And that’s why you see us in two different sports.

“We work hard and push ourselves, sometimes too much, but not to the point where we’re hating what we’re doing or that we’re sick all the time.”

After coming so close to reaching the world stage, Byram appears determined to make good on his next attempt. Also on his radar is a spot on the national men’s team. If he does that, it would likely translate into more international exposure through the Commonwealth Games (July 23-Aug. 3, in Scotland) and Pan Pacific championships (Aug. 21-25, in Gold Coast, Australia).

“I’m hungry to win and hungry to be on the senior team,” said Byram. “It would be a big step to 2016 (Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), which is the main goal right now.”