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Swimming's Long-distance love affair

The man is as fearsome a swimmer as this country has produced.

He freestyles thousands of metres a day, takes a breath then swims a thousand more. Medals? He has a collection from the Pan Pacific championships, Commonwealth Games, world aquatic championships and Summer Olympics.

What Ryan Cochrane doesn't have, he's creating.

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Of all the great swimmers who have dazzled for Canada, and there have been many - Elaine Tanner, Alex Baumann, Victor Davis, Mark Tewksbury, Marianne Limpert, Curtis Myden - each was successful over short distances, the longest being 400 metres, four laps (there and back) of a 50-metre pool.

Cochrane's specialty is the torture-test 1,500. It's his sport's answer to the metric mile in track, where speed is every bit as important as pacing, and strategy as crucial as stamina. But in Canadian swimming, the 1,500 freestyle has been the forgotten event, overlooked and undervalued with no stars or medals for more than 80 years - until, that is, Cochrane surfaced like a porpoise in 2006, and began establishing himself among the best in the world.

"[Australian]Grant Hackett was one of the greats of the greats and he was following a culture of distance swimming in Australia," said Pierre Lafontaine, Swimming Canada's chief executive officer and national head coach. "Ryan is creating that culture in Canada."

Primed for this summer's world championships in Shanghai, China, Cochrane has evolved from promising teenager to 22-year-old power swimmer - a guy who loves both the simplicity and complexity of his event. In his younger days, he swam the shorter distances and had some success. But it wasn't until "the 1,500 found me," he recalled with a laugh, that everything fell into place.

Not that it was love at first lap. The Victoria-born Cochrane can remember competing at local and provincial meets and finishing his swim with almost no one in the stands. The majority of onlookers had gotten bored and gone home. Cochrane battled on.

"I don't think anyone would choose to be in a distance event," he said. "The sprints are more exciting and get more attention. I was never really a good sprinter and I love how you can play cat and mouse. There are eight guys vying for the podium and any one could make it. It's great competition."

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Cochrane had hoped to slip into the pool virtually unnoticed. Although they told no one, Cochrane and coach Randy Bennett had schemed and trained for a podium finish. Told he had to swim fast in his heat to make the 1,500 final, Cochrane blew his cover by setting an Olympic-record time of 14 minutes 40.84 seconds.

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Sufficiently motivated, Hackett, the world-record holder, went out and bettered Cochrane's time two heats later. In the final, Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia won the gold, with Hackett taking the silver and Cochrane the bronze.

It was Canada's first Olympic medal in the 1,500 since George Vernot won silver at the 1920 Antwerp Games.

Canadian swimmers, coaches and fans alike were thrilled. Cochrane and his coach felt dissatisfied.

"Hackett and Ryan were goggle-to-goggle. The outlying guy [Mellouli]was on the other side. They opened the door for him," Bennett said. "Ryan was real disappointed. I was real disappointed. I thought we made some mistakes.

"We use that racing [video]clip quite a bit around strokes and turns. It was a hard thing for me to watch. I said he had to win his heat. I didn't think it would be at 14:40. Instead of being an unknown entity in the final, he became a bit of a target.

"The cost of taking on all comers took its toll."

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Cochrane followed his Olympic showing with a silver medal in the 1,500 at the 2009 worlds, then won double gold at both the 2010 Pan Pacific's and Commonwealth Games.

This April, though, he wasn't happy with his racing or his results. He acknowledged that since Beijing his confidence "had been a bit of a problem." He'd become complacent, uneasy. He decided the best thing to do was to go back into the water for some arm-sapping training, hours and hours of multiple laps at high speed. It worked to purge his angst and strengthen his resolve.

"I think I've done hard blocks like that before," Cochrane said. "But this time it wasn't just the level of training; it was about making my strokes better. My eating habits were better. I was more positive and I was happy to do it."

And by doing it in an event where he's setting a new Canadian standard, giving it value and a reason to watch, Cochrane's diligence has not gone unnoticed or unrewarded. He believes he can add another Olympic medal to his collection. Others do, too.

"There's been a little bit of maturity in Ryan, a sense of not just going to participate at international meets but of belonging on the world stage," Lafontaine assessed. "He goes to win, and it's nice to see because he's also helping the rest of the team aim there. He really is."

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. He joined the Globe and Mail in 1997 with an extensive sports background having covered Stanley Cup finals, the Grey Cup, Summer and Winter Olympics, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the 1989 Super Bowl riot and the 1989 earthquake World Series. More

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