Later this summer, Josh Liendo will race again in Budapest, Hungary at the 19th FINA World Championships where he will enter as a medal favourite in the 100 butterfly after a 50.88 at last month’s Canadian Trials. He will also race the 50m and 100m freestyle.

“I’m super excited about being back at that pool - I just remember it was such a nice pool,” Liendo told FINA about Budapest. “The environment was really good. That was my first international event where I really stepped up and was able to get some medals at. It’s really good to be going back to that pool.”

His 50m (21.63) and 100m freestyle (48.35) were also impressive, throwing himself in the ring as perhaps the new face of Canadian men’s swimming.

Following in the Footsteps of Legends

Born and raised in the Caribbean, Liendo grew up idolising American basketball player Allen Iverson and didn’t have any specific swimmer that he had looked up to. And it wasn’t until recently that he was able to swim with one of Canada’s living legends.

For years, Brent Hayden was the face of men’s sprinting in Canada. He competed in four Olympics and reached the Olympic podium in 2012 in the 100 freestyle - the same year Liendo moved to Toronto with his family.

Hayden initially retired after 2012 but re-invigorated himself in late 2019 to come back. With an additional year of preparation, he qualified for his fourth Olympic team in Tokyo, where he was able to take a young Liendo under his wing.

“I definitely learned a lot from Brent,” Liendo said. “(High Performance Center teammate) Yuri (Kisil) was the one I learned a lot from by training with him, he got my freestyle (to be) really good. Brent came along a little later and he has been on the international stage for so long and he knows a lot. I learned a lot about how to swim races and he would give me tips about preparation - I definitely learned some valuable lessons from Brent.”

Hayden teamed up with Liendo and fellow sprinters Yuri Kisil and Markus Thormeyer for the 4x100m free relay where they finished just six tenths off the podium, an unlikely feat for a team that was 13th in the same event at the last World Championships in 2019. Hayden had lit a fire under the team that they could again reach the podium in a men’s relay, something Hayden last did for the men’s team in 2007.

Torch Passed

With the recent re-retirement of Hayden, Liendo is now leading the team of Kisil, Ruslan Gaziev, and Javier Acevedo, all of whom train together at the High Performance Center in Ontario with head coach Ryan Mallette, into this summer’s Worlds where a medal is possible.

“We’ve got some good guys!” Liendo said of the 4x100 free relay. “Yuri had a little bit of a shoulder issue that he is still getting better with but he still swam really well for how he was feeling. He is doing a lot better now and I think he can be a lot faster. He was a 47.1 on that relay in Tokyo so it is exciting. Ruslan is a lot better than he was in Tokyo and I’m better than we were in Tokyo, so I think this relay we are taking - we are all improved and I think our team will do really well. It’s exciting.”

With those four swimming in the same training base, it creates a camaraderie they can craft every single day in the lead-up to Worlds as they talk each other up in workouts to push for a potential spot on the podium.

“Ruslan was there in Tokyo and he made a big jump this year... I’m telling him - we can have a better team than we did in Tokyo, and we got close in Tokyo. I am trying to motivate these guys because we have a really good team. We always have some relay emphasis in practice and I feel like this men’s team getting good is motivating.”

Canada’s last men’s relay medal came in 2007, while its last individual medal was from Ryan Cochrane in 2015. In that time span, the Canadian women have become a dominating force, with individual Olympic gold medals from Penny Oleksiak and Maggie MacNeil in 2016 and in 2021.

Both Oleksiak and MacNeil train at the High Performance Center in Ontario, giving the men’s team a standard of excellence to live up to.

“They give us some work to do!” Liendo said. “You see them going in and they’re killing it so naturally we know we have to step it up. They definitely motivate us 100 percent.”

Learning From Experience

Liendo raced three events last summer in Tokyo, making it to the semifinals in the 100 free and 100 fly as well as getting an 18th place finish in the 50 free. Racing at the FINA World Championships is one thing, but the Olympic Games is the pinnacle for the sport of swimming. Those Olympics gave him a front-row seat to the sport’s biggest stage; a ticket that is hard enough to obtain for any Olympics, let alone the Games that took place during a global pandemic with no spectators permitted.

“I’m sitting up there and my coach at the time, Ben Titley, was like ‘look at these guys and the way they do things. They’re not making the mistakes you make’ and I was getting that in my head. He was like ‘look at how much you have to improve’ but these were easy things to fix. That was what I was looking at when I saw that fast swimming. It was really cool because you’re watching world records getting broken and some tight races and good races. It was really fun to watch.”

Although he didn’t have a swimming idol growing up, he has a great deal of respect for the two butterfly world record holders - Caeleb Dressel of the United States and Kristof Milak of Hungary.

If he can play his cards right, Liendo could be standing side by side with both of them in Budapest, either in the 100 butterfly final or even on the podium for that event.

“It would mean a lot because that is something I am working towards,” Liendo said of an individual podium appearance. “It’s one of my big goals so I’m working towards it and if I can get on there that would be huge.”

But the 100m butterfly isn’t the main focus for this summer, even if it was the race Liendo was happiest with after Trials when he got under 51 seconds. After Tokyo, he felt like he had more to give in the 50m free on the last day of the meet, and after these past Trials, he felt the 100m free had the most room for improvement.

“I just didn’t swim it the way I should have so I want to see what I can do in that 100 free,” Liendo said of this summer. “The 100 fly, I’ve had the most work to do, so I still have some room to work in that, so I’m also excited to see what I do there. The 50 free, I have that speed and that comes pretty natural to me so I think all three I’m super excited, but the 100 free is the main one.”

With just a month to go until the FINA World Championships, Josh Liendo looks to be one of the rising elites of swimming. And the opportunity to confirm his place in the sport will come in the same pool where many first heard his name - the Duna Arena in Budapest.