Canada's all-star team of swimmers pushes each other to succeed, and next wave is already in view

The Rio Olympics in 2016 have proved a watershed moment for Canada's swim team. There was momentum building for a group of women who were beginning to form one of the most dominant female swim teams the country has ever produced. 

What started in Rio looks primed to continue in Tokyo

L-R: Penny Oleksiak, Sydney Pickrem, Maggie Mac Neil and Kylie Masse, pictured after winning bronze in the 4x100 medley relay at the 2019 world championships, are the cornerstone of the strongest women's swim team the country has ever produced. (Getty Images)

It was late March in 2012 and Canadian swimmers were preparing for their big moment — the Olympic swim trials in Montreal. The pressure of this event is often overwhelming for even the most seasoned swimmers on the team. 

An eager 16-year-old Kylie Masse showed up at the pool, just grateful to be at one of the big meets so early in her swimming career. There were certainly no expectations and Masse finished 99th overall in her event, the 100-metre backstroke, well off any chance of qualifying for the team heading to the London Olympics that summer.

But the opportunity did provide one of the more pivotal moments in her career. She remembers watching the MacLean sisters, Heather and Brittany, earn their spots and it stuck with her.

"I loved swimming and I was there just to be at the trials. It was an accomplishment to be there," says Masse, seated in the sunshine on the patio of the Marriott Hotel in Vancouver where Canada's swim team has gathered before heading to Tokyo. "I remember vividly watching Heather and Brittany making the team. Them hugging. Those moments are ingrained in my head."

The spark was lit. Masse was hooked. She wanted that moment for herself. 

Masse, from LaSalle, Ont., trained relentlessly for the next four years leading up to the next trials, determined that moment Heather and Britttany shared would one day be hers.

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Four years later it was. In 2016, a 20-year-old Masse easily qualified for the national team, finishing first in the 100-metre backstroke, breaking the Canadian record in the process and earning her ticket to the Rio Olympics.

There was momentum building. Not just for Masse, but for a group of Canadian women who in pools across the country, away from the spotlight, were beginning to form one of the most dominant female swimming teams Canada has ever produced. 

"Momentum is huge. I strongly believe that's why in 2016 we had so much success. Seeing one another succeed, it was like if they can do it, why can't I do it? It made everyone want to do it," Masse says. "It seemed so much more attainable."

That tidal wave of strong swimming led to a pool party for Canada in Rio.

It started on the first night. The women's 4x100m freestyle relay collected a bronze, the first medal in that event for Canada in 40 years. Teenagers Penny Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck became the first Olympic medallists born in the 21st century. Twenty-four hours later, Oleksiak swam to her second medal at the Olympics, a silver in the 100m butterfly. 

Then it was Masse's turn. In her first Olympics she swam to a bronze medal in the 100m backstroke — the same event that just four years earlier she finished 99th in Canada. 

"I watched Penny the night before me in the 100m [butterfly] and it was just like, she was my teammate, and I was like I want to do that," Masse says. "Being surrounded by someone who does that, makes you want to be a part of it."

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In total, Canadian women picked up six medals at Rio — third highest total for Canada in the pool at a Summer Games. Eleven out of the 19 women on the team were part of the medal haul, establishing a core group of athletes who have continued pushing each other to the extremes and turning out consistent world-class performances.

Now they're setting their sights on a repeat performance in Tokyo. 

"I think we all rise to the occasion and push each other," says Oleksiak, at 21 a slightly more mature version of the kid who made a splash in Rio. "And I think we all take it personally. If one of us isn't doing well, that person always feels so guilty. We all want to do it for each other. I think that's a big thing," Oleksiak said. 

Oleksiak rose to stardom during those Rio Games, the first Canadian athlete to win four medals at a single Summer Games. At 16 years and 59 days old, she was Canada's youngest Olympic gold medallist ever.

It was a lot to absorb and the expectations got to Oleksiak. After a rocky few years in the wake of her Olympic debut success, Oleksiak now seems dialled in and credits a young star in the making for pushing her to be better.

Fourteen-year-old Summer McIntosh has earned a spot on the Canadian swimming team heading to Tokyo. She defeated Oleksiak in the 200m freestyle event in June in Toronto. 

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"I think she's one of the most resilient swimmers I've ever met," Oleksiak says. "I don't know what it is but she is a stone-cold killer. That girl doesn't care about anything, she just wants to train, get in the water and swim fast. 

"I love that. I admire that about her. It pushes me in training and I want to be more like her."

And just like Masse, who watched the MacLean sisters have their Olympic team moment, McIntosh experienced something quite similar five years ago. 

"I was actually at the trials in 2016. At this pool. I was sitting right up there in the west stands. It was so incredible to watch Penny," says McIntosh, pointing to the west bleachers at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre. 

Of course, McIntosh is no stranger to the scene. Her mother, Jill, swam in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and won bronze in the 200-metre butterfly at the 1986 Commonwealth Games.

"I was able to come on deck since my mom is part of the alumni and I got a picture with Penny," McIntosh says of that day. "It was so unreal. It's crazy to think that was five years ago. It feels like two minutes ago."

A young Summer McIntosh, left, and sister Brooke with Penny Oleksiak at the 2016 national swim trials in Toronto. (Submitted by McIntosh family)

'Feels like a blur'

Nine years old then, bright-eyed and wondering if one day she would get that same opportunity — five years later now traveling with an Olympic champion to the Games. 

"It doesn't really feel real at all yet. It just feels like a blur. It hasn't sunk in, that's for sure," she says. 

Eleven out of the 24 swimmers named to Team Canada train out of the Pan Am Sports Centre in Toronto. A few of them were late additions in the midst of the pandemic. 

Maggie Mac Neil has been spending her time in the United States swimming at the University of Michigan. At the 2021 NCAA swimming championships, Mac Neil won and set an NCAA record in the 100-yard butterfly, becoming the first woman in history to go under 49 seconds in that event. 

At the 2019 world championships, Mac Neil won gold in the 100m butterfly and set a Canadian record at her first world championships. But she faced what she calls the hardest decision of her career this past spring in the peak of the pandemic. 

"Trials kept moving. I had to decide when to move back," Mac Neil says. "I knew I had to return. It was just figuring out the right time for me and my coaches. The transition."

London's Maggie Mac Neil says the competitive nature of the team's practices has pushed each to be better. (Lchlan Cunningham/Getty Images/File)

Mac Neil had to change training regimen

Mac Neil, from London, Ont., was forced to leave her coaches and training program in the U.S. because of all the changing restrictions and start fresh with the team at the high-performance centre in Toronto — not an ideal situation just months before the Olympics. 

After two weeks of quarantine Mac Neil got to work with the national team and coaches at the beginning of April. 

"Toronto has been a really great fit. I was really worried about changing up my training before the Olympics but it's worked out better than I thought," she says. "It was the right call looking back on it. I've seen my backstroke and freestyle have improved immensely since I arrived and that's just being able to train with the best we have in Canada."

Mac Neil, 21, says the ultra-competitive atmosphere is bringing out the best in everyone. 

We're just feeding off the momentum of each other and I think that'll be huge in Tokyo when we need each other's support.- Maggie Mac Neil

"Knowing how hard they work at practice every single day is incredible. If you're not on, you need to figure out how to turn it on fast because they're going all the time. You need to keep up with that," she says. 

"We're just feeding off the momentum of each other and I think that'll be huge in Tokyo when we need each other's support."

Sydney Pickrem had to make the same decision. She was training and swimming in Texas before also heading to train with the team in Toronto in December.

Again, like Mac Neil, Pickrem had to change programs and coaches. But she's been thriving at the high-performance centre.

"That's not normal to be surrounded by ten other Olympians," the 24-year-old says with a laugh. "It's something so special and empowering. It's a sense of what we've all had to come through this year that puts it in a different perspective."

Pickrem, from Halifax, won three bronze medals at the last world championship, one as a part of the women's 4x100m medley that set a Canadian record. It's the prospects of the relay teams that has Pickrem is fired up about going into Tokyo. 

"I look back at Rio and I don't think our relays were in contention the way they are now in the world," she says. "I think that was really cool seeing that all happen in 2019. 

"That camaraderie built as the success in relays grew. We all feed off of each other."

Tasked with coming up with the training sessions and strategies for success is coach Ben Titley. He admits 11 athletes under his watch is probably more than he wants, but he's quick to point out the support he has around him and the swimmers. 

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Titley says the key to getting the most out of the team has a lot to do not with what happens in the pool, but outside of it. That's why during the staging camp in Vancouver he's spending time with the athletes away from the pool and hotel. 

"The personalities are very different. If you go from a Penny Oleksiak to a Summer McIntosh, they're two entirely different human beings," he says. "They have the same goals and aspirations but the way they get there and carry stress are two different things.

"People just need to be positive, confident and support each other."

Titley says despite the Canadian swimmer's success at Rio and at the past world championships, they're still flying under the radar like they were five years ago going into the Games. 

And he doesn't mind it one bit.

"The reality for Canadian athletes, not just in swimming but lots of sports, is that we're somewhat under the radar because of being locked down so much of the pandemic," he says. "They just haven't competed very much. Underdog mentality. It might work to our advantage.

"We haven't shown all our cards yet."

Whatever happens in Tokyo, one thing is certain — the Canadian women have a different level of confidence than ever before. They all know things won't go perfectly smoothly during the entire swimming competition in Tokyo, but they've all got each other's back for when that happens. 

Even Oleksiak, the reigning Olympic champion who struggled at times since Rio, has found her swagger again, thanks in large part to her brilliant 100m freestyle swim at trials, at 52.89 seconds her fastest since she won gold in Rio. 

"I feel like I have been counted out," she says. "I've been seeing these Olympic projections of finals and stuff like that. And I'm never in it. 

"I might not be good right now but if you know me, you know I'm going to be good for the Olympics."

Buoyed by those around her and in turn, reminding each other how great they all can be. 


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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