07/26/2012 01:58 EDT | Updated 09/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada's swimmers confident in more medals, more finals at London Games

LONDON, UK - Canada's swimmers are demanding more of themselves at the Summer Olympics.

After no medals in 2004 and one bronze in 2008, Canada's team of 33 athletes is targeting three medals and swimmers in 13 to 15 finals in London.

"It's completely different," backstroker Julia Wilkinson said Thursday. "Four years ago, it was 'we hope we can make some finals.'

"Now, it's 'who is going to be the first one to win a medal?' We've kind of come in with this swagger and we believe we can do it."

As though to punctuate her point, the Stratford, Ont., swimmer had her nails painted red, white and gold this week.

"They're really obnoxious," she laughed.

Swimming starts Saturday and runs for eight days at the Aquatic Centre on Olympic Park. The open-water races, which are 10-kilometre swims, will be contested the second week of the Games in Hyde Park.

Victoria's Ryan Cochrane's prevented a second straight shutout in the pool in Beijing when he won bronze on the last day of competition. Wilkinson was about to race a relay and recalls she and her teammates were stunned to tears by Cochrane's medal.

There will be no shock and awe this time, according to the head of Swimming Canada.

"I don't have a crystal ball," said chief executive officer Pierre Lafontaine. "I can tell you the Canadian kids in our lanes are going to walk pretty tall and they're going to feel they belong in that pool. They're not going to get intimidated by much."

Cochrane continues as a medal favourite in the men's 1,500 freestyle, which is again scheduled for the final day of swim competition. He won silver at last year's world championship and will chase world-record holder Sun Yang of China for gold.

Cochrane will try for a medal before that, though, in Saturday's 400 metres. The 23-year-old was fifth in the world last year after running third at the halfway mark.

"I'm really excited to race that event, especially after last year's world championships," said Cochrane. "It was the first time — was in the mix, in the medal hunt. I think I made some mistakes over the years in that event, but it's part of the learning process."

Wilkinson, former world champion freestyler Brent Hayden of Mission, B.C., and Toronto breaststroker Martha McCabe, a world bronze medallist in the 200, are also among Canada's potential medallists in the pool.

Open-water swimmer Richard Weinberger of Surrey, B.C., can also be included in that group. He's posted World Cup podium results and won an Olympic test event at the Hyde Park venue over the last year.

Canada's climb back to respectability in swimming can be traced back to the hiring of Lafontaine away from the Australian Institute of Sport back in 2005. After getting shut out in Athens a year earlier, Canada won four silver and a bronze at the world championship in Montreal.

Hayden, a 28-year-old competing in his third Olympics, won a world title in the 100-metre freestyle in 2007 and was second in the world last year. Cochrane has earned back-to-back silver in the 1,500 at world championships.

"Especially after Athens, we said 'you know what? This sucks,'" Hayden said. "It did not make us feel very good.

"What we were doing was not enough. We had to be better. Success is contagious. We've been building it. We're definitely not a powerhouse in the swimming community, but every year, we're always getting a little bit better and a little bit better."

Lafontaine, from Chelsea, Que., intensified work with the national developmental team upon his return to Canada. One result is increased depth in the women's program. Sinead Russell, an 18-year-old from Burlington, Ont., is a rising talent in backstroke, as is 19-year-old Tera Van Beilen of Oakville, Ont., in breaststroke.

Lafontaine wants all his swimmers posting the fastest times of their lives in London, which is tough to do at an Olympic Games.

"If you're anything above 50 per cent, you're bloody good because most countries are in the 20 and 30 per cent because of the stress," he explained. "It's completely different from going to a world championship.

"You don't control the village, you're standing in line with 40 people for food. Here you've got to line up for the bus, maybe we'll be stuck in the rain walking to the bus."

Eighteen Canadian swimmers will make their Olympic debuts in London. The team arrived from a training camp in Obia, Italy, earlier this week.

"We had quite a few meetings just talking about what are our own team expectations and what are our own personal expectations," Hayden said. "Everybody got to stand up and say what they want to bring to the team.

"It's different seeing rookies coming now than it was when I was coming onto the team as a rookie. Maybe that's just my old eyes seeing things a little differently now. There's definitely a change in dynamic. I've witnessed the evolution. I think it's people are more hungry for success now."