At 6:15 on a May morning, three months before the start of the 2016 Olympics, controlled chaos reigns at Scottsdale’s Cactus Aquatic & Fitness Center. Fifty-plus teens from Scottsdale Aquatic Club’s elite National Team dart about, huddling and chatting, preparing for a practice in the center’s Olympic pool – one of nine punishing sessions they will have this week alone, on top of full course loads at school. But most of them want to be here, swimming laps for hours at stupid o’clock on a Saturday morning.
In the midst of the mayhem, Taylor Ruck stands tall, surrounded by a squirming mob of fellow swimmers. It’s not hard to pick Ruck out of the crowd. Slightly over 6 feet tall with an elastic, rail-thin body reminiscent of Michael Phelps’ unusually elongated frame, the 16-year-old Scottsdale phenom towers above many of her teammates. She stands out in other ways, too.
“She could be one of the best in the world,” says Kevin Zacher, head coach of SAC’s National Team. “I’ve never had an athlete that wants to get her hand on the wall first as much as she does.”
We’ll see if she can come August, when Ruck goes for liquid gold on swimming’s grandest stage – the XXXI Summer Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro. As the Chaparral High School junior bends to take her mark at practice, doing an impromptu booty bop to one of the funky pop songs being pumped into the pool area, she seems like the quintessential all-American girl, but she’s not even American. Ruck was born in Kelowna, British Columbia, and will swim for Team Canada at the Summer Olympics.
Despite struggling with bronchitis at the Canadian trials, Ruck qualified for the 200-meter freestyle relay team with a time of 1:58.67. At press time, Ruck had a shot at adding two additional events: the 4×100 free relay and the individual 400-meter free.
To be sure, Ruck improved her Olympic qualification odds by swimming for Canada and not for the United States, where “300,000 swimmers [are] registered with USA Swimming” and, of those, “2,000 make the trials and 52 go to Rio,” according to Zacher. Drawing from a much smaller pool, Canada will take 29 swimmers to Rio.
But the odds did not compel Ruck to choose Team Canada, she says – nor do they explain why she will never swim for Team USA. It’s a frequently asked question. Though Ruck has grown up essentially American – she’s lived and trained in Scotts-
dale since she was an infant, and hopes to swim for the University of California at Berkeley or USC after high school – her Canadian roots run deep. Her father, Colin, now a Valley-based management consultant, played in Canada’s Western Hockey League. Her mom, Sophia, swam as a teen for the Kelowna Aqua Jets. Everyone in her family is a Canada native and citizen.
After practice, Ruck fields a few questions. Notoriously nervous around strangers, she gives mostly brief and guarded answers. Asked – for probably the umpteenth time – why she chose Canada over the U.S., Ruck says, simply, “I’m Canadian.” She opens up a bit when the subject turns to Canada’s chances in Rio. “What I hope will happen would be that Team Canada could medal in the 4×200 free relay,” she says. “That would be amazing. This new generation [of Canadian women swimmers] is really fast.”
Even so, Ruck’s Olympic heroines are speedy Americans. She says Team USA stars Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin, who made Olympic debuts at the London games, sparked her ambition to swim internationally: “My first real excited swimming memory was 2012. Katie Ledecky’s races, and how she was just killing everyone in the water, and Missy Franklin’s races. I didn’t realize that it would be so soon that I’d make it [to the Olympics], but it was definitely one of my long-term goals.”
In London, Ledecky and Franklin won fistfuls of medals for the U.S. at age 15 and 17, respectively. At full health, and given her raw power and speed, it’s not unreasonable that Ruck could rock the pool in Rio. Her stellar time of 53.92 in the 100-meter free at last year’s FINA World Junior Championships was the third-fastest ever recorded by a 15-year-old, behind only China’s Chen Xinyi and Li Zhesi. (Zhesi was dropped by the Chinese National Team in 2012 for taking a performance-enhancing drug, making Ruck’s time even more significant.)
If Ruck finds Olympic success at Rio (or, more realistically, at Tokyo in 2020), much credit should go to Zacher. During drills, he is a take-no-crud kind of guy. One on one, the former Iowa State University swimmer is thoughtful and frank. He’s groomed hundreds of swimmers for high-level success and obviously cares for his charges. Says Ruck, “Kevin is very understanding when it comes to what I need.”
Zacher’s fond of her, too – except on those days when she decides to act her age. “Taylor has an amazing feel for the water,” he says. “She’s tall, has long arms, great length. There are some days where it’s tough, though, because I’m expecting her to do a certain thing and it’s just not there. I know how much talent she has, so it’s, like, ‘Ahhhhhhh.’ I have to take a step back and understand where she’s at, not just physically in the water, but emotionally, mentally. She’s still got to mature and come to a better understanding of [her] gift.”
One Ruck attribute that’s fully formed, Zacher says, is her competitiveness. She wants to touch that wall first. She wants to swim laps at stupid o’clock on Saturday morning. “She’s a gamer,” Zacher says. “Some swimmers just go back and forth in the pool without giving it much thought. That’s not Taylor. It’s very much about the swimming for her.”