Canadian swimmer Ilya Kharun, son of Cirque du Soleil acrobats, turning heads at national trials

Canadian swimmer Ilya Kharun knows a thing or two about stepping into the spotlight and stealing the show. The 18-year-old who was born in Montreal but has spent the majority of his life living in the United States is the son of two parents who spent most of their lives performing with Cirque du Soleil. 

18-year-old phenom will compete at worlds in Japan this summer

A male swimmer looks off into the distance with his goggles up over his eyes and his head above water while waiting at the end of a swimming lane.
Ilya Kharun looks up at his time after winning the men's 200-metre butterfly at the Canadian swimming trials in Toronto on Friday. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Canadian swimmer Ilya Kharun knows a thing or two about stepping into the spotlight and stealing the show.

The 18-year-old who was born in Montreal but has spent the majority of his life living in the United States is the son of two parents who spent most of their lives performing with Cirque du Soleil. 

"My family was travelling around the world and I just happened to be born in Montreal," he told CBC Sports at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre during national trials this week.

"My parents were always performers. Now they're retired. I was always part of the experience. My family were acrobats. Both my mom and dad were in the show."

Kharun only spent the first few months of his life in Montreal with his travelling acrobat parents before moving to Las Vegas. 

That's where he's lived since he was about one years old. 

"My mom put me in swimming at a young age. I was like four years old. I just went from there," Kharun said. 

WATCH | Ilya Kharun a name to watch as Paris Olympics get closer: 

Who is Ilya Kharun?

1 year ago
Duration 1:22
Rising star Ilya Kharun has been putting on a dominant display during the 2023 Canadian Swimming Trials. He was an unknown name to most when the competition began, but his performances have shown that he is a name to watch as the Olympics in Paris get closer.

Unexpected turn

He's been a longtime member of the Sandpipers program in Nevada and less than a year ago was on the path to compete for the United States at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Hawaii last August. 

But here's the thing — Kharun had a Canadian passport and not an American passport. His swimming path took an unexpected turn in a hurry. 

"It happened really quick. I was like, alright, I'm a Canadian now," he said. 

America's loss has been Canada's gain and Kharun says he's feeling right where he belongs wearing the maple leaf. 

This week at the national swim trials Kharun has been once again turning heads at the pool. On Friday night he nearly broke his national record in the 200-metre fly. Earlier in the week he posted a personal-best time in the 100m fly. He'll be representing Canada at worlds in Fukuoka, Japan this summer. 

Kharun says Canadian swimming fans should be excited about what he's going to do in the pool. 

"Hopefully they can expect a lot from me," he said, smiling.

At the short course worlds in Melbourne last December, the young swimming phenom finished with three Canadian records, two world junior records and two medals. 

Longtime Canadian swimming commentator Byron MacDonald, who swam for Canada at the 1972 Olympics, says Kharun is on a meteoric trajectory. 

"His improvement arc has been so dramatic that you usually don't level off when you're on an arc like that," MacDonald said.

"He's so young. He's going to get stronger. He's going to move into a senior's men's program where he's going to get challenged day in and day out."

WATCH | Kharun sets world junior, Canadian records in 100m fly at short course worlds: 

Canada's Ilya Kharun sets world junior and Canadian record with short course worlds silver

1 year ago
Duration 3:28
The Montreal-born youngster clocked in at 49.03 to set a new Canadian and world junior record in the men's 100-metre butterfly event at the FINA world swimming championships (25) in Melbourne.

Kharun is in his final year of high school. He's committed to Arizona State and will be coached by legendary Bob Bowman, who famously helped Michael Phelps to 23 Olympic gold medals. 

MacDonald says Kharun's growth will be greatly helped by being part of Bowman's program, which in turn will help the Canadian program.

"It helps Canada tremendously because he'll not only do something wonderful in the 200m butterfly but now what happens it frees up Josh Liendo to swim the freestyle in the medley relay. And this young man can do the butterfly," MacDonald said.

"When he swims, it looks so effortless. He has the kind of stroke, added strength, he will go faster. And this is still a young man, there's a lot more there."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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