For Ryan Cochrane, the past four years has somehow turned into nine seconds he can’t get back.
Somehow, winning a third straight Olympic medal in Rio de Janeiro wasn’t meant to be.
When the 27-year-old Saanich swimmer slipped to sixth overall in his speciality, the 1,500-metre freestyle, there was a collective pause, followed by a collection of thoughts by sympathetic fans and, Cochrane alike. After such an illustrious career, it was a moment of disbelief for followers of the Claremont secondary grad.
On Monday, Cochrane declared defeat in a candid and thankful Facebook post.
“Selfishly, I’m absolutely gutted by my results; I feel as if I’ve let our entire country down by not performing the one time it matters,” he wrote. “I take my role as a leader on the Canadian team seriously, and because of that I know I should have done better.”
In a shout out to Canada’s women swimmers, who won six medals in Rio, Cochrane passed the torch, as he likely steps away from competition as Canada’s most decorated swimmer. Cochrane is a four-time gold medal winner at the Commonwealth Games, twice in each of the 400m and 1,500m. In the 1,500m freestyle there are few who can outpace his six-foot-four frame on the planet. He won bronze at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and then moved up to silver at the 2012 Games in London. He’d also won bronze and silver at the FINA Worlds, including bronze in 2015.
But in the first Olympics without his coach and mentor Randy Bennett, who died in 2015, the expectations Cochrane put on himself were clearly for nothing less than a podium finish.
“I’ll always regret that I couldn’t contribute to our team’s success here in Rio, but either way it’s been a privilege to be able to witness our women’s team’s accomplishments,” he said. “I’ve never been so proud to call myself Canadian.”
The response from his fans and the swim community was overwhelmingly positive, suggesting what most already know, that his effect as a positive role model is immeasurable. And it’s no wonder. This is the same athlete who restored Canada’s swimming hopes with an Olympic bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games, where he briefly held the 1,500m Olympic record of 14:40.84. That was Canada’s first swimming medal since the 1996 Games, and once again this year, there was enough evidence to believe he could medal for a third straight Olympic Games.
Exactly one year ago, Cochrane finished third in the 1,500m at the World Championships in Kazan (with a time of 14:51.08). However, despite calmly but confidently declaring a strong year of training, Cochrane was unable to touch the wall in less than 14 minutes and 40 seconds, as he did four years ago to earn silver in London with time of 14:39.63. Instead, he slipped to 14:49.61. Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri won gold in 14:34.57, followed by United States’ Connor Jaeger with silver in 14:39.48 and Italy’s Gabriele Detti with bronze in a time of 14:40.86.
Following his 1,500m race, Cochrane told Oylmpic.ca the race was particularly hard.
“The first half was exactly what we have planned for, but I didn’t have that lift, I didn’t have anything left at the end,” Cochrane said. “In a way that’s a slight positive knowing I didn’t wait till it was too late but at the same time, what do you do when it’s four years of training and it doesn’t pay off.
“All year I thought the motivator was: ‘This is your last chance.’ Today that made me very nervous. Instead I tried to trust all of the people involved in getting us there. I had the right mindset, it just didn’t pay off.”
Overall, Swimming Canada finishes the 2016 Games as a major success with 15 finals and six medals, tripling its 2012 output of two medals. The women led the way, with Cochrane’s Saanich teammate Hilary Caldwell winning bronze in the 200m backstroke, and 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak of Toronto introducing herself to the world with four medals (gold, silver and two bronze).