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Canadian backstroker Sinead Russell qualifies for first Olympic final

Sinead Russell of Canada swims in her women's 200m backstroke heat during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 2, 2012.

DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

The first time Canadian teenager Sinead Russell found herself swimming beside world-record holder Kirsty Coventry this week she didn't realize who it was.

But before Thursday's semi-finals in the 200-metre backstroke, the 18-year-old from Burlington, Ont., had a quick look at the start sheet.

"I just wanted to know who was there," she said.

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In the event, Russell found herself in the same heat not only as Coventry, but as budding 17-year-old American superstar Missy Franklin (she of the Canadian parents).

Russell stayed with them – and actually led the race into the first turn – and qualified for her first Olympic final on Friday by finishing a strong third in a world-class semi-final.

"I couldn't see (Franklin), I'm staring at the ceiling," she laughed.

Canadian swimming officials should take considerable satisfaction at the performance of the team's young women – 18-year-old Brittany MacLean also reached a final this week, and a relay squad with an average age of just 20 finished fourth in the 4 x 200-metre freestyle.

Now it will be Russell's time to occupy the spotlight – although she is used to public attention given the legal travails of her father, Cecil, who was reportedly in attendance.

The elder Russell has been banned for life from coaching swimmers and attending meets in Canada – he was twice convicted for playing a role in drug rings and once testified to helping burn a murder victim's body in a silo beside his home.

None of that carries much importance at the moment for Sinead Russell, whose main preoccupation after the semis was to settle her emotions enough to get some rest.

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Asked if she'd had time to consider her race strategy for the final, she said "I'm not going to think about that right now, I'm going to think about winding down and actually trying to sleep . . . it won't be easy at all."

"My mum gave me a bunch of books because she knows that reading helps me calm down," said Russell, who is reading a historical novel by Michael Morpurgo, author of 'War Horse'.

Earlier in the breaststrok, Martha McCabe of Toronto swam fiercely in the 200-metre final but couldn't manage to close on the leaders, finishing fifth.

"I've never dreamed about swimming so much or thought about swimming so much . . . I knew it was going to be fast, so the third 50 (metres) it was just 'go'," said the emotion-wracked 22-year-old, whose family, known to intimates as 'Team Fleabag', was in the stands wearing special t-shirts for the occasion. "It's the best time in a while, I have to be happy with it, but it's not a podium finish like I was dreaming."

The first race of the evening involved another Canadian, 100-metre freestyle bronze medalist Brent Hayden of Mission, B.C.

Swimming in the 50-metre freestyle semis, the 28-year-old Hayden could do no better than eighth.

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It's not the end of the world, the three-time Olympian will be able to spend Friday evening admiring his first Olympic medal.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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