Summer McIntosh Chasing World Records? The Plausible and the Nearly Impossible

Summer McIntosh -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Summer McIntosh Chasing World Records? The Plausible and the Nearly Impossible

During a historic 2022, Summer McIntosh vaulted herself from teenage mid-distance freestyler on the verge of winning international medals to a multi-time world champion. McIntosh became the consensus third-best 400 freestyler in the world behind Ariarne Titmus and Katie Ledecky, but in a less-predictable twist, she began exceling in the individual medley and butterfly events, a process that began the first weekend of March when she broke 4:30 in the 400 IM for the first time.

Twelve months later, it now seems very reasonable that McIntosh could one day end up her name next to the 400 IM world record, a mark currently held by Katinka Hosszu at an absurd 4:26.36. At the 2016 Olympics, Hosszu broke the previous world record by more than two seconds, and no one has come within two seconds since. But after McIntosh secured the world title in the 400 IM, she got down to the 4:29.01 in winning gold at the Commonwealth Games before becoming the third woman in history to break 4:29 at the U.S. Open in early December.

As for her other primary events, the world records that the 16-year-old McIntosh will chase over the next few years are similarly daunting. In the 400 free, the top time belongs to Titmus at 3:56.40 after the Aussie tracked down Ledecky’s previous mark at Australia’s selection meet last May. Only three women in history have ever broken 4:00 without the aid of a now-banned polyurethane suit, with Ledecky lowering the world record from 3:59.15 to 3:56.46 in the span of two years before Titmus finally caught up to that pace last year after steadily dropping time each season.

Last year saw McIntosh steer toward that range, topping out at 3:59.32 in August, still almost three seconds off the world record but more than three seconds quicker than the time she swam on the way to a fourth-place finish in the previous year’s Olympic final, which had been (to that point) a Canadian national record by a substantial amount. So, is a 3:56 possible for McIntosh one day?

As for the 200 fly, the world record belongs to Liu Zige at 2:01.81, a record was set in October 2009, months before the polyurethane suits were banned. Liu’s record crushed the previous mark set only months earlier at the World Championships by Australia’s Jessicah Schipper (in a race where Liu took silver) by 1.6 seconds. And in more than 13 years since, no one has come within two seconds of this record, with another Chinese swimmer, Zhang Yufei, coming the closest with a 2:03.86 gold-medal-winning swim at the 2021 Olympics.

Not many world records from the high-tech suit era remain. Some, like the 200 free world records belonging to Federica Pellegrini and Paul Biedermann or Michael Phelps’ final world record in the 400 IM, have only come into play recently, while others, like Aaron Peirsol’s 1:51.92 in the 200 backstroke or Zhang Lin’s 7:32.12 in the 800 free, could last for multiple generations to come. Without a doubt, Liu’s 200 fly record fits into the latter category.

That said, if there is any swimmer currently active on the elite stage who could break that record, it’s McIntosh. She got down to 2:05.20 in her world-title-winning swim last summer, making her the 12th-fastest performer in history. But while a three-second drop in a 400-meter race seems doable, it seems unlikely in half the distance.

It’s not a crazy idea that McIntosh could one day break an individual world record, even if she can maintain close to her current progression of improvement for a few years — and the most likely event possibility for the Canadian star making such history is certainly the 400 IM. As for her other two events, which is more likely? Becoming the first woman to swim a 3:55 in the 400 free or breaking Liu’s 200 fly world record? It’s the 400 free, no doubt, if only because it would require a much lower percentage improvement.

As much history as Ledecky and Titmus have created in the 400 free, neither has ever walloped more than one-and-a-half seconds off a three-month-old 200-meter world record in one swim, leaving the record completely out of reach for more than a decade’s worth of champions. Even for McIntosh, that would be a really tough hurdle to overcome.

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5 months ago

Well, didn’t take her long to grab two of the world records you mentioned.