At 14 years old, Summer McIntosh is about to take her first long trip away from family and race in her first major international swim competition. It’s a little event called the Tokyo Olympics.
Summer is a ninth-grader from Toronto who stole the show at Canada’s recent Olympic swimming trials – touching the wall before Rio Olympic star Penny Oleksiak in one of her wins. She wears colourful masks decorated with sparkly jewels and adores animals, including a family cat named Mikey (after Michael Phelps, of course). She has a mom who swam in the 1984 Olympics and a family that’s boundlessly supportive.
She has progressed dramatically since coming to train at Ontario’s High Performance Centre in Toronto’s east end just more than a year ago, with well-known coach Ben Titley and several of Canada’s fastest swimmers. They look out for her like a little sister and respect her like a fierce competitor. The Olympics will be her first time representing Canada. She was officially chosen for the 26-member swim team alongside Olympic medalists such as Ms. Oleksiak, Kylie Masse and Brent Hayden.
Summer will be Canada’s youngest swimmer at these Games – and likely the country’s youngest athlete. The 5-foot-8 teen is slated to swim the 200-, 400- and 800-metre freestyle races. She’ll also be a key member of the women’s 4×200-metre freestyle relay team, an event in which Canada earned bronze in 2016.
”Honestly, it doesn’t feel real at all yet. It felt like a blur,” she told reporters at the trials last week. “It’s been a crazy year for everyone. I’m just really happy.”
The pandemic hasn’t been easy on the McIntosh family. Summer’s father, Greg, was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago and moved into a place on his own near the hospital when he began treatment. With his therapy progressing well, he recently moved back into their house in Etobicoke as Summer and her mother, Jill, decamped to a condo near the pool to keep everyone at home (including Summer’s 16-year-old sister, Brooke, an elite figure skater) protected while Summer travelled to and from training each day.
During the biggest races of her life last week, her family and friends couldn’t be there to watch. The trials were held under strict pandemic protocols, with no fans allowed. Music and recorded cheers compensated for the empty stands, while swimmers’ families appeared virtually on a big pool-side video screen. Jill waited in the parking lot, watching the races on her phone and jogging on nearby paths until her daughter bounced out the doors for a ride home.
Summer will also be embarking on her Olympic journey without her family. All told, she’ll be gone for four weeks, starting with a pre-Olympic training camp under strict health protocols in Vancouver. The team says it will find a safe way for Summer’s mom to visit before she leaves for Tokyo, where athletes’ families aren’t allowed.
“Ben has been unbelievable with Summer, and he’s taken her swimming to the next level,” says Ms. McIntosh. “The swimmers look out for her like she’s their sister. For her to go away by herself to Tokyo, I’m so comforted by the people who are around her.”
Long before Summer earned the opportunity to train under Mr. Titley – in a group of elite swimmers such as Ms. Oleksiak, Ms. Masse, Taylor Ruck, Rebecca Smith and Kayla Sanchez – she started taking swimming lessons with her older sister. That wasn’t her only activity – she also did figure skating, horseback riding and gymnastics – but it eventually became her favourite.
Summer began training at the Lakeshore Swim Club when she was 7, and she progressed noticeably under her coach, honing both her strokes and her work ethic. Three years later, she quit everything else and joined a competitive program at the Etobicoke Swim Club (ESwim), coached by Kevin Thorburn, who was well known for developing kids into national champs and Olympians.
Summer began to dominate the competition, especially in the longer-distance races. She rewrote the national swimming record books across various strokes and distances for females in the 11-12 and 13-14 age groups.
Then, in April, 2020, shortly after the pandemic began, Mr. Thorburn died unexpectedly at the age of 63.
“His death was obviously very hard for everyone, including Summer,” her mother says. “His swimmers couldn’t go hug each other as teammates to comfort one another because it was during COVID. It was very difficult to get through.”
With pools closed for nearly four months, Summer trained as best she could, swimming between the docks in the lake at her family’s cottage and in their backyard pool, attached to a tether. She did dry-land training exercises with Brooke, a pairs skater who has competed in world junior championships and Youth Olympics.
Then her parents contacted Swimming Canada to see if Summer could work with Mr. Titley, the same coach who developed Ms. Oleksiak before her four-medal performance at the Rio Olympics at the age of 16. Summer was already on Mr. Titley’s radar, and she soon joined his group of top swimmers, including Ms. Oleksiak, whom Summer had met as a nine-year-old spectator at the 2016 Olympic trials. They even snapped a photo together. Now, here they were, training at the same pool.
“Within two months, we started to see things in training, and we were like, ‘This kid can make the team,’” Mr. Titley recalls.
Initially, they had her pegged in the distance events. But early in 2021, Summer’s time in the 200-metre freestyle began to speed up dramatically from the 2 minutes and 3 seconds she’d been swimming. Still, they didn’t expect her to be one of Canada’s top two in that event leading up to Tokyo. Fast-forward to last Sunday at the Canadian trials, when Summer won the 200m freestyle in 1 minute 56.19 seconds, surging past six-foot-tall Ms. Oleksiak, who placed second at 1:57.24. Both raced under the Olympic qualifying time (1:57.28), and 21-year-old Ms. Oleksiak raved about the youngster: “My biggest competition is the smallest person in the pool right now.”
“She does not die … it’s all gas, no brakes with her,” added Ms. Oleksiak. “I love her work ethic. She’s really strong in and out of the pool mentally. I just love her.”
The next night, Summer beat a different group of swimmers in the 800-metre freestyle in 8 minutes 29.28 seconds, well under the Olympic qualifying time and six seconds faster than her previous best, set last month.
“I don’t even remember what I was doing when I was 14; I’m not even sure if I was taking swimming seriously yet,” says Ms. Masse, 100-metre backstroke bronze medalist in Rio. “I think as her name begins to get out there – and obviously she’s so young – it’s important for the older people on the team to just try and keep things as normal as possible for her.”
When she won the 200m, her dad appeared on the video board, pumping his fist in celebration. During her 800m victory, two of her closest friends showed up on the feed, beaming and wiping away tears. Still catching her breath after the second win, Summer put on a red mask decorated with shimmering silver stones – one of several glittery masks handmade for her by a dear friend in their family’s figure-skating circle. She wore it for her brief postrace interviews, which naturally included reporters via video call comparing her rise to Ms. Oleksiak’s.
“When I got into the picture with her, I would have never, ever imagined I’d be making the team five years later,” says Summer, referring to their photo together in 2016. “I totally remember watching her [in Rio]. I was like, ‘Oh my God. I love watching her race.’ … She really did inspire me, and she still does inspire me.”
For someone who just made it through her first year of high school, Summer is extremely organized when she arrives at the pool, getting right to work on her prepool exercises. As for Mr. Titley, he tries to shelter her from too much media attention – but he knows that won’t be easy.
“That attention is a lot for a young person to get their head around, and I think she already felt a little bit more weight of expectation before her second race [at trials],” says Mr. Titley – though he adds she still managed to win and qualify. “When you speak to her, there’s a steeliness to her face. … She reminds me of a great white shark – that’s how I describe her. Just so focused on what she wants to do.”
Summer balanced training this year with virtual studies at Etobicoke’s Silverthorn Collegiate Institute, which provides flexible learning for elite athletes. She hasn’t experienced any in-person high school yet, but hopes to next year. As for what comes after that, Summer hasn’t thought much about it – though her mom swam at the University of Florida after finishing ninth in the 200-metre butterfly at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when she was 17.
Summer is Canada’s youngest Olympic swimmer since Robin Corsiglia (in Montreal, 1976) and Barbara Hounsell (in Tokyo, 1964), who were both 13. There will be younger athletes in Tokyo, including 12-year-old Syrian table-tennis player Hend Zaza, and skateboarders Sky Park from Great Britain (12) and Rayssa Leal of Brazil (13).
Mr. Titley says that at the moment, Summer isn’t fast enough for individual medals in Tokyo – she’ll be racing against superstars such as American Katie Ledecky, whose 800m freestyle gold-medal swim in Rio clocked in at 8 minutes 4.79 seconds. Then again, few predicted Ms. Oleksiak would medal in her solo events in 2016; and the same goes for Ms. Ledecky as a 15-year-old Olympic rookie in London 2012.
Medal or not, Summer will return home after Tokyo, enjoy her 15th birthday in August, spend time with her family, and hang out at the cottage with her friends.
“She’s also our free-spirit child,” says her mom. “She enjoys relaxing just as much as working hard.”
The Globe and Mail, July 1, 2021