RIO DE JANEIRO — Canada's depth and potential in women's freestyle talent surfaced Saturday night at the Olympic pool with a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 relay.
Sandrine Mainville of Boucherville, Que., Winnipeg's Chantal Van Landeghem, Taylor Ruck of Kelowna, B.C., and Toronto's Penny Oleksiak combined in that order to produce Canada's first medal of the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
Oleksiak touched the wall behind winner Australia and runner-up United States in a national-record time of three minutes 32.89 seconds.
Sandrine Mainville, Chantal Van Landeghem, Taylor Ruck celebrate their win. (Photo: CP)
"We came here to play with the big dogs," Van Landeghem said. "We had that confidence going in.
"We've been working for this moment. We've been bleeding, sweating, everything. We knew we had put in the work and now it's just time to let that show.''
The Aussies defended the gold in a world-record time of 3:30.65 with the Americans taking silver in 3:31.89.
The Australian, American and Dutch women have dominated the 4 x 100 free relay with one of those countries winning it the last 10 times at Olympics and world championships.
Sandrine Mainville, Chantal van Landeghem, Taylor Ruck and Penny Oleksiak pose with their bronze medals on the podium. (Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)
But the Canadian women ended a 40-year medal drought in the race. Anne Jardin, Becky Smith, Barbara Clark and Gail Amundrud were Canada's relay medallists in Montreal in 1976.
The medal marked a day of stunning Olympic debuts for relay closers Ruck and Oleksiak, who didn't turn 16 until May and June respectively.
"It's pretty surreal, but definitely all the girls that raced today deserved the medal," Oleksiak said. "We've all trained for this and it's just been a crazy experience.''
"We came here to play with the big dogs."
— Chantal Van Landeghem, Canadian swimmer
Toronto's Michelle Williams, who will also get a medal, raced the third leg in the morning heats. Ruck swam the anchor leg in the prelims as Canada posted the third-fastest qualifying time behind Australia and the U.S.
"I'm totally overwhelmed," Ruck said. "It's the best night of my life so far."
Just over an hour before the relay, Oleksiak booked a berth in Sunday's 100-metre butterfly final with the fifth-fastest qualifying time in the seminals.
The teen beat her own world junior record in the morning heats in a time of 56.73.
'Beautiful fast demons
Mainville, Williams, Van Landeghem and Oleksiak all train side-by-side under Canadian team head coach Ben Titley in Toronto.
"We always said we had the advantage over the other team because we are all like really close friends and we push each other in training and we're always together,'' Mainville said. "People would say 'oh, does it always annoy you to be with these girls?' I'm just really proud to be around these girls.
"It's really hopeful for Canada for the next few years. Sprint freestyle improved a lot in the last few years."
Mainville, the oldest on the team at 24, shed a few tears on the podium when she saw her mother in the stands.
"It means so much and it's even more special getting to share it with four of your teammates,'' said 22-year-old Van Landeghem. "These beautiful fast demons are amazing."
Ryan Cochrane takes part in the men's 400-metre freestyle heat at the Rio 2016 Olympics on August 6, 2016. (Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)
The swim team earning a podium on the first night of competition drew some of the sting out of Ryan Cochrane missing the men's 400-metre freestyle final.
Canada's top medal hope in the pool in the 400 and 1,500 freestyle and the face of the swim team did not finish in the top eight in the morning heats to advance.
He was 11th in a time of three minutes 45.83 seconds.
The 27-year-old from Victoria will race for a medal in the 1,500 during swimming's finale Saturday. Cochrane earned silver in the 1.5k in 2012 and bronze in 2008.
"It's frustrating, but I know I'm fortunate enough to have two chances at the Olympics and not a lot of people get that second chance," a contained Cochrane said.
"I'm an old-enough athlete to know where to see what I need to work on and I have six days to do that."
He later tweeted "frustration and disappointment both on my mind today."
Emily Overholt of West Vancouver, B.C., placed fifth in the women's 400-metre individual medley final.
A bronze medallist in last year's world championship, the 18-year-old's Olympic preparation was hampered by a right hamstring injury sustained after April's trials.
"Honestly, a couple of weeks ago, if you told me I'd be fifth at the Olympics, I wouldn't have believed you,'' Overholt said. "My expectations going into this meet were pretty low just after the injury.
"Finishing fifth, I'm really happy with it."
Russian swimmers reinstated
Further adding to the doping confusion of these Games, the Associated Press reported Saturday that FINA is reinstating Russian swimmers who were subject to bans for having tested positive for performance enhancing drugs previously in their careers.
"I wish it was even across the board," Cochrane said. "For an athlete that's clean it's really frustrating for me to see that.
"Once the Games is done, that's something we'll all look back on and hope was handled better throughout the quadrennial. Not just right before the Olympics."
In other opening-day races, Sydney Pickrem of Oldsmar, Fla., was 12th in the women's 400 I.M. and Noemie Thomas of Richmond, B.C., tied for 18th in the 100-metre butterfly. Calgary's Jason Block tied for 24th in the men's 100-metre breaststroke.
Oleksiak and Ruck are among the two dozen of Canada's 28 swimmers making their Olympic debut in Rio.
Swim Canada high-performance director John Atkinson says "up to 14 finals is something that we're keen to do."
The Canadian team reached seven finals four years ago in London and came home with a silver and a bronze medal from the pool, and a bronze in the men's open-water race.
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