The sprinter: How UBC student Yuri Kisil became an Olympian

In the call room at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, UBC swimmer Yuri Kisil waited for the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay. Seated in the row behind him was Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time, and the French relay team, who had won gold four years ago in London. 

Everyone in the room wore tense, unsmiling expressions on their faces— except for Kisil.  The 20-year-old danced a little jig in front of the cameras and his relaxed attitude seemed out of place at such an elite level of swimming. 

But once he dived in the water, Kisil showed that he could race with the best athletes in the sport.  Among all the swimmers competing in the second leg of the relay, Kisil’s time of 47.76 seconds was the third fastest, behind only Phelps and Australian swimmer Kyle Chalmers, who eventually won the gold in the 100-metre freestyle. 

Kisil’s swim propelled the relay team to a seventh place finish — a promising sign considering that four years ago in London, the Canadians had failed to even qualify for the finals.  This was his very first Olympic final, but already, Kisil showed that he belonged on the international stage. 

It was still nerve-wracking to swim against so many legendary swimmers, he admitted.   

“These are guys that I looked up to," said Kisil. "As a kid, I remember sitting at home and watching them on the TV, thinking I want to be those guys one day.  And getting to race and learn from them was an unbelievable experience.”    

No longer a spectator, Kisil has received greater attention since becoming an Olympian, shining a spotlight on his swimming like never before. Friends from the past and others who wouldn’t normally watch swimming gave him support, giving him more incentive to perform well.    

Yet Rio 2016, and the limelight and publicity that came along with it, was only the final stage of a long, two-year journey.  Kisil already saw the Olympics as a realistic goal in 2014, when he became the fastest Canadian in the 50-metre freestyle and 100-metre freestyle for that year.  With those swims, he qualified for his first senior national team, representing the country in the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships that summer.

Kisil is a sprinter, specializing in races that never exceed 50 seconds.  Yet, the preparation leading up to the games was more like a marathon swim than a sprint.  Even with other international competitions in the schedule, such as the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, the ultimate goal was always the Olympics. 

“Throughout the two years, there were many ups and downs.  There were times when it was hard to be motivated, and other times when it wasn’t as hard,” said Kisil. 

The months were marked with gruelling training in the pool and the gym— a weekly average of 25 hours. With two or three sessions a day, practicing for Kisil often became a day-long routine — one which extended into many other aspects of life outside of the pool. Reaching his Olympic aspirations required many sacrifices and the swimmer had to reconsider priorities. 

As a younger swimmer, Kisil often skipped practices, but a change was sparked as he began qualifying for national teams. 

“I realized I could be really good at this and I want to be really good at this," said Kisil. "That’s when it became urgent, where the most important thing was to make a practice.  Whatever it took to make a practice.”

With the heavy workload, other activities had to be pushed aside, such as his social life.  Often, early morning training meant sleeping early instead of going out with friends. 

The inordinate amounts of swimming and gym sessions also required the swimmer to work out routines that would allow him to finish his schoolwork in spite of the exhaustion he often felt from practices.  This conscientious approach in balancing swimming and school was something that Kisil, who is entering his second year in the faculty of arts, got better at as his university studies progressed.  

The dedication and hard work of the past two years gave Kisil confidence as he stepped onto the pool deck at Rio, ready to swim the most crucial races of his career. As nerves began to set in, Kisil relied on the preparation and training for reassurance. 

“I had to tell myself, ‘This was the fastest you’ve ever swum going into the meet and your dives are the best they’ve ever been.’  I had to stay in positive facts that I knew would reassure me.”