Downing strikes gold at Mel Zajac

An 11-time Olympic medalist is just one of the star swimmers three Yukoners were taking on at the Mel Zajac Jr. International, one of the biggest meets on Canada's swim calendar, last weekend in Vancouver.

An 11-time Olympic medalist is just one of the star swimmers three Yukoners were taking on at the Mel Zajac Jr. International, one of the biggest meets on Canada’s swim calendar, last weekend in Vancouver.

Whitehorse native Mackenzie Downing, who swims for UVic’s Pacific Coast Swimming, showed why the 200-metre butterfly is her best event, winning gold.

“We’re in a pretty heavy workload right now and we’re in in-season right now, and I was really happy with the race,” said the 24-year-old. “I was happy with all my results on the weekend, so that was good.”

In addition to American Olympic marvel Natalie Coughlin, the ultra-fast University of California team was attendance at the meet, which hosted about 400 of the continent’s best. For the gold Downing defeated American Caitlin Leverenz, who swims for the University of California and has won gold at the Pan American Games and two bronzes at the Pan Pacific Championships.

“Natalie Coughlin is an 11-time Olympic medalist and I swam against her in some of the freestyles, so there was a really high calibre of athletes to compete against,” said Downing. “They race really well in-season. In the states you really have to be on your game every time you swim. So going into it I was more thinking about racing them and racing hard.

“So beating them is a really good step for me.”

Downing, who was recently added to the Team Canada roster for the Summer Universiade, also came fourth in the 100 fly, ninth in the 50 fly and 200-metre freestyle, 10th in the 50 free (with a personal best time), and 15th in the 100 free.

“I was kind of nervous going into the meet because I’ve been kind of getting over being sick,” said Downing. “So I’m really happy with the position I’m in and am looking forward to the rest of the summer.”

Whitehorse Glacier Bears Alexandra Gabor and Isabel Parkkari also had a good weekend.

Gabor broke into the A final in all her events, snagging 6th in the 100 free, seventh in the 50 free and eighth in the 200 free.

“The 200 was a bit of a disappointment. It was the first day and it had been a while since I did that kind of race,” said Gabor. “I was pretty surprised with the 50. I’m pretty happy I made A finals – that doesn’t happen too often in the 50 free. I’d say that is one of the best races I did because it was so unexpected. I haven’t been working my sprint too much.”

Throughout her events, Gabor broke eight Glacier Bear club records, having moved into the 18-and-over division this season. There may have been more records to fall, but she scratched from the 400 and 800 free events.

“I’ve been going through some shoulder injuries, it just wasn’t feeling good and I didn’t want to push it too far,” said Gabor. “It’s right at that point between getting worse and getting better, so I didn’t want to aggravate it too much.”

For Bears up-and-comer Parkkari, the meet was a milestone. The 14-year-old reached her first senior national time in Vancouver in the 1,500 free, finishing fifth.

“There aren’t many 14-year-olds swimming at senior nationals,” said Glacier Bears head coach Marek Poplawski. “Senior national times are very high standards, so they are not very easy to achieve.

“Her race was just fantastic. She kept a very steady pace to make a good time – she was ahead of the pace even – and she sped up at the end.”

Not only does her time qualify her for the senior nationals championships, it puts Parkkari in next year’s Olympic trials.

“To be around when the Olympic team is selected will be fantastic for her – she’ll be just 15,” said Poplawski.

Parkkari also came 23rd in the 800 free, 33rd in the 200-metre individual medley, 39th in the 400 free, and 65th in the 100-metre backstroke.

“It was good to have the (University of California) girls there,” said Gabor. “And having an Olympic medalist there, I think it stepped up everyone’s game.”

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