Skip to content

Culture, higher standard play role in continued success of Canadian women's swimming

Summer McIntosh reacts after winning the women's 200-metre LC Individual Medley at the Canadian swimming trials in Toronto on Thursday, March 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The Canadian women’s swimming team has been among the best in the world over the last several years, powered by the likes of Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse, Maggie Mac Neil and teen phenom Summer McIntosh.

The foursome have won a combined 38 Olympic and world championship medals, and high performance director and national team coach John Atkinson says a culture shift at Swimming Canada over the last decade has gone hand-in-hand with that success.

“It's changed over the last 10 years. We focused a lot initially on improving and everybody can focus on their improvement,” Atkinson said. "So right now, working with each athlete on what their path is, that's kind of where we're at.

"I think we focus on the individuals and the person first and then we can work with them and their coaches about what it is that they're doing and someone might not do what another team member does. But at the end of the day, all those paths will converge … at the Olympic Trials and then next July as well."

The standard has also been set higher.

“I think just the philosophy of, ‘You're not just making the team, you've got to make the team because we know that you're going to be able to perform,’ has had a big impact,” said Cynthia Pincott, Swimming Canada's senior manager of high performance for its Olympic program.

“I remember in the 2000s, it was very much, you know, ‘Let's get everybody on as many teams as possible so that they gain that international experience,’ whereas now our philosophy seems to be ‘Get on the team because you're going to make a semifinal and you're going to make a final, you’re gonna have another swim.’ 

“So we've set the bar higher which makes people reach for that bar that's higher and that’s what brings part of our success.”

Oleksiak, across two Olympics, has become Canada’s most decorated Olympian with seven medals. Masse has picked up four in the same span, while Mac Neil won three in her Olympic debut in Tokyo.

McIntosh, however, has almost completely taken over the spotlight. Her debut at the Tokyo Games two years back featured two fourth-place finishes across four events.

The 16-year-old Toronto native then won two gold medals at the 2022 worlds, along with a silver and a bronze in the four events she competed in and followed that up with a five-medal performance at the Commonwealth Games.

But her showing so far at the Canadian swimming trials has been eye-opening as to what the future could hold.

McIntosh set a world record in the women’s 400-metre freestyle event on Tuesday and finished 0.77 seconds off the world record for the 200 individual medley on Thursday.

Speaking to reporters via Zoom on Wednesday afternoon, McIntosh credited the culture of the program with her ability to handle such moments.

“Yes, I think that comes from just the experience and being surrounded by so many amazing people that have been through very similar situations and kind of have a lot more time that they’ve spent in this sport,” she said. “I think a lot of the people down at Swim Canada, when it comes to coaches, but a lot of the teammates as well, have taught me so much throughout the past few years, and I'm really grateful for that. 

“I think just overall, Swim Canada's team has really kind of just got on the scene this past like few decades and we've really kind of grown. And I think that comes from the team culture and everyone surrounding us. We’ve kind of motivated each other every day to get better. And I think it's not just one person, but it's it takes an entire team, for sure.”

While the current group has certainly been successful, significant changes in the sport make it hard to compare today's swimmers to the women’s teams that won 12 total medals between the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

“I think our sport is a living, breathing, changing sport and it makes it difficult to compare, … in my feeling, of one group to another,” Pincott said. “The technology has changed, the training environments have changed, the science has changed, the rules have changed in our sport. 

“So it's extremely difficult to say that this group is the best we've ever had. I'd like to think they are, though.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.

Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks