Summer McIntosh chose swimming and became Canada’s big splash
The McIntoshes wanted their daughters to experience a kaleidoscope of sports. Brooke and Summer grew up in Toronto and did horseback riding, gymnastics, even skiing.
By age 7, Summer narrowed it to figure skating and swimming and had an epiphany after falling on the ice in a competition.
She still won. It perplexed her. Her parents explained how judged sports, where flawed performances can prevail, differed from racing against a clock.
“She stopped skating the next day,” her father, Greg, said.
Summer McIntosh chose swimming because she wanted to earn it.
She made her Olympic debut at age 14 in Tokyo, then last June won two gold medals at the world championships, part of a global group of 2000s babies taking over the sport.
McIntosh and Katie Ledecky were the only women to win multiple individual gold medals in Olympic events at 2022 Worlds. They are appear headed for a showdown in one event at the 2024 Paris Games.
“Swimming was always my favorite because it’s very simple,” McIntosh said. “You go the fastest time, and you win.”
Turns out, she went into the family business. Mom Jill swam at the 1984 Olympics and won the consolation final of the 200m butterfly for ninth place overall.
Three decades later, they watched it together on the family computer.
“I remember being amazed about how far swimming’s progressed since then,” McIntosh said.
“I remember her giggling at our swimsuits,” Jill said.
McIntosh actually never finished her first learn-to-swim lessons. By level seven of a 10-level program, it was suggested she be accelerated into a more competitive group “because she had a very natural feel for the water,” Jill said.
McIntosh, who turned 2 years old the day after Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, said she began to take swimming seriously by age 12.
In a scene reminiscent of Phelps, McIntosh’s coach pulled Jill aside as she began breaking national age group records.
“We’re not really going to talk about them with Summer,” Jill remembered Kevin Thorburn telling her. “Because what you don’t want is a 12-year-old thinking they’ve made it when she has a lot more potential to go.”
In separate interviews, McIntosh’s parents said that it was Thorburn, then coaching her at Etobicoke Swim Club in Ontario, who first predicted the kinds of big things that McIntosh is now achieving.
Like after McIntosh turned 13 years old in August 2019. Thorburn told her that she could swim the 1500m freestyle fast enough to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games, which would make her the youngest Canadian Olympian across all sports in 44 years. They altered their training from all four strokes to focus on the grueling distance freestyle.
The Olympic postponement to 2021 gave McIntosh an extra year to qualify. She did so in three individual events and a relay.
Thorburn was not there to see it. He died in April 2020 at age 63.
“His passing was an absolute shock and was devastating to Summer,” Greg said.
In January 2021, Greg was diagnosed with early-stage and treatable throat cancer (and is now recovered). Jill remembers that day as probably the only time that McIntosh has missed a swim practice.
The family decided that he would live in a separate apartment from Jill, Brooke, by then an elite figure skater, and Summer, who was training for the Olympic Trials, in part to lessen the risk that any of them caught COVID.
“She just used swimming as a positive thing in her life at that point, and it was truly a blessing,” Jill said.
On June 20, 2021, Jill dropped her younger daughter off at the Toronto Pan Am Sport Centre for the Olympic Trials 200m freestyle final. COVID restrictions meant no spectators.
CBC had offered the swimmers’ families the opportunity to video in to be part of interviews with winners. Jill had to watch the race on a stream from the parking lot while waiting to drive her daughter home. So Greg, dealing with side effects from radiation and chemotherapy, unfurled from his bed, showered for the first time in three days and dialed in, just in case.
McIntosh won. She clinched an Olympic spot and spoke virtually with Greg, wishing him happy Father’s Day.
The next month, McIntosh traveled outside of the U.S. and Canada for swimming for the first time. It was to Tokyo for the Olympics. Sportsnet reported that, before the Games, McIntosh told the rest of the Canadian swimmers in a team-building exercise that if she could wish for a super power, it “would be to never age.”
In her first Olympic race, she broke the Canadian record in the 400m free heats, then lowered it again in the final to place fourth. It was the best individual Olympic finish for any swimmer that young in 25 years, according to Olympedia.org.
“I didn’t really have any expectations,” she said. “For me to even make the Olympic team was, like, a really big deal for me and one of my main goals.”
The ascent continued at her world championships debut last June in Budapest. In the 400m free, she went 3.03 seconds faster than at the Olympics to earn silver behind Ledecky.
She followed that by winning her mom’s event, the 200m fly, to become the youngest individual world champion since 2011. There was no splashy celebration in the water. “I think I’m a little bit in shock right now,” she said moments later in a pool-deck interview. Months later, she said it’s the highlight of her career. Unlike trials and Tokyo, her parents were there to see it.
“She was calm and collected about the whole thing,” Greg said. “She made a very good point that she had more races to go, so she didn’t want to get too high.”
On the last day of the eight-day meet, she won the 400m individual medley, which crowns the world’s best all-around swimmer.
McIntosh got her braces off, then flew to Birmingham, England, for the Commonwealth Games. She swept the 200m and 400m medleys in world junior record times and made six podiums total. She flew home, decompressed at the family cottage along an Ontario lake with 11 friends and celebrated her 16th birthday.
The medals rest in a box that looks like a chair in the family basement in Toronto. McIntosh is now the third-fastest woman in history in the 400m IM and fourth-fastest in the 400m free. She doesn’t set specific goal times.
“Everything’s different for everyone,” said McIntosh, who puts greater emphasis on intermediate splits within races. “If you have a time and you don’t know how to get to that, it’s harder to gauge what you want to do.”
She doesn’t have a favorite event. “It’s like asking a parent who’s their favorite child,” she said.
From the outside, the most anticipated 2024 Olympic race is on the first night: the 400m free, potentially against the last two Olympic champions in Ledecky and Australian Ariarne Titmus, the two fastest women in history. A year and a half away, it has already been compared to the “Race of the Century,” the 2004 Olympic men’s 200m free that included Phelps, Australian legends Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett and Dutch star Pieter van den Hoogenband (won by Thorpe).
“She wants to live up to what she thinks is her full potential, which is compete with the best,” Greg said.
That in mind, McIntosh relocated last year from Toronto to Sarasota, Florida (a three-hour drive down Interstate 75 from Ledecky in Gainesville), where she previously had a training block when COVID got bad in Ontario. The Sarasota Sharks have more swimmers closer to McIntosh’s age who share her events, Jill said.
McIntosh and her mom rent a home less than a mile to the outdoor pool. McIntosh needs a driver for 5 a.m. practices since her learner’s permit does not allow her to legally get behind the wheel before sunrise. “I get up at 4:10 a.m. to drive her a minute and a half to the pool,” Jill laughed.
McIntosh fuels with banana walnut loaf cake from Publix, does virtual school (set to graduate next year) and scans TikTok for home decor and interior design inspiration.
She made sure to be in Ontario in late October. She sat at an ice rink in Mississauga, watching older sister Brooke practice for the biggest international figure skating competition of her young senior career. The next day, McIntosh beat Ledecky for the first time at a World Cup meet in Toronto. The day after that, Brooke and her pairs’ partner finished fourth as the second-youngest team in an eight-team field at Skate Canada.
McIntosh is in the middle of heavy training, so she will watch Brooke compete at this week’s Canadian Championships via live stream from Florida. Those close to her praise her work ethic. Penny Oleksiak, the co-2016 Olympic 100m freestyle champion, has labeled her “all gas and no brakes.”
It’s been that way for years. McIntosh said that another sport she dabbled in during elementary school was running. She did the 400m because she said it was the farthest distance for kids at that age.
“I wasn’t the best runner,” she said, “but if I wasn’t a swimmer, I’d be a runner.”
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