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HIGH ACHIEVERS: After pandemic & broken foot at worlds trials, Tennessee-bound swimmer Regan Rathwell rebounds

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By Martin Cleary

The one-year-delayed Summer Olympic Games were on the horizon for 2021 and Ottawa swimmer Regan Rathwell was in a rut – she wasn’t going any faster as a backstroke racer.

The COVID-19 pandemic was all around and there were annoying, but necessary restrictions and mandates. Pools were closing for health reasons and it was anyone’s guess when they might re-open.

“The last two years I had been on a plateau. I wasn’t seeing any improvement,” explained the Greater Ottawa Kingfish Swim Club athlete who commuted daily from Ashton, ON. “It was frustrating when you don’t see improvement. At times, it was unmotivating.”

Just a month before the team trials for the 2022 Aquatics World Championships – where she’d compete against Kylie Masse, one of the top backstroke swimmers in the world – another weight of the world landed on her.

During a weightlifting training session while attending a swim camp in Florida, Rathwell dropped a 10-pound plate on her right foot.

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“I broke my (right) foot (hairline fracture) right before trials. It was not my best performance (at trials),” Rathwell, 18, said in a recent interview. “I was in a walking boot and I didn’t want to stop swimming.

“I honestly don’t know if it had an effect on my performance (at trials). But last year my 200-metre backstroke time was four seconds faster than at trials. As much as I said I was fine… it definitely had an impact.”

Rathwell thought she might have a chance to make her first senior worlds team in the 200-metre race. She would have to swim faster than she had ever gone before. But she also had a broken foot, and though she did compete, her results didn’t make the grade to earn a spot on the senior team.

Despite the struggles, there was a positive outcome that came from the combination of COVID and her plateauing, oddly enough.

After swimming eight years with the Kingfish and working well with coach Jason Allen, Rathwell determined it was time to move to a new swimming environment and see if she could kick start her career.

In the wake of the 2021 Summer Olympics, Rathwell was accepted into the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre – Ontario, which is located at the Pan Am Pool in Toronto. The centre was the place to train with a dozen world-class Canadian swimmers, including Summer McIntosh, Penny Olesiak, Joshua Liendo, Maggie MacNeil and Masse.

Regan Rathwell announced her potential with a standout 2017 season as a 13-year-old. File photo

“I loved training with my (GO club) coach, but with COVID, I was training by myself and mentally it was hard,” explained Rathwell, who showed talent as a 13-year-old, when she won a bronze medal in the 400-metre individual medley at the 2017 Canada Summer Games. “At the beginning of the (school and swimming) year, it was time for a change.

“(In Toronto,) I was training with the best of the best. I thought training was hard before, but this was eye-opening to me.”

Rathwell has seen how the world’s best swimmers train in the pool and in the weight room and how they use every hour to their advantage. Her training program is allowing her to develop her arm and leg muscles so she can be stronger and move faster through the water. She’s learning more about herself on the psychological side of the sport.

As her swimming career is in a more positive environment today, she also can look ahead at some more encouraging features.

In April, Swimming Canada named Rathwell to its first international development team since 2019. Rathwell will be one of 36 swimmers heading to the Junior Pan Pacific meet Aug. 24-27 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

After that world-class testing ground to see how her training at the High Performance Centre – Ontario has fared, she’ll begin her intercollegiate career and academic studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She will study exercise science and kinesiology.

Rathwell, an honour-roll student who completed her Carleton Place High School Grade 12 studies online while training in Toronto, was recruited by 50 American universities. As overwhelming as it was, she narrowed the field to 10. A visit to the University of Tennessee felt like a second home all-around.

University of Tennessee-bound swimmer Regan Rathwell. Photo: @vol_swimdive Instagram

She committed to Tennessee early in her Grade 11 year, after being offered a full-ride athletic scholarship. The Tennessee Vols women’s swim team is a quality program, having won the Southeastern Conference (SEC) title in 2022 and the school’s swim program placed in the top 10 at the NCAA championships for the fourth straight year.

“I talked to the Tennessee coach and talked to a couple of athletes and instantly put that above everything else. In the end, it wasn’t a hard decision,” Rathwell said. “I loved the team. That was the biggest factor for me. I loved how they cared to get to know the athlete. Some schools cared more for results.

“I talked to a few girls and they said they had fun at practices. I didn’t want it to feel like a full-time job. They enjoyed their practices. They hung out together outside the pool. I got a sense of a family vibe and that’s important being so far away.”

Rathwell also was impressed by the swimming and athletic resources available at the university as well as the international flavour of its swimming program roster.

By being a part of the High Performance Centre – Ontario for another couple of months, she can be part of that electric atmosphere, which will become even more charged after Canada’s historic performances at the world swimming championships in Budapest.

“Ten years ago when I started, swimming wasn’t on the map in Canada,” Rathwell said. “Now, I’m watching Summer McIntosh and the progress everyone is making.

“It’s thrilling to watch swimming in Canada evolve. It makes you work harder and want to be a part of it.”

Read More in our 2022 High School Best Series, presented by Louis-Riel Sports-Études, as we tip our caps to top local student-athletes at:

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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