So I guess we know what Canada’s going to be doing in July, 2024. We’ll all be watching Summer McIntosh.
A week ago, Ms. McIntosh was a name drifting along the periphery of the big time. At 14, she was the youngest athlete on Canada’s Olympic team in Tokyo two years ago.
Last Tuesday, at the Canadian swimming trials in Toronto, Ms. McIntosh, 16, set a world record in the 400-metre freestyle. On Saturday night, she set another world record, in the 400-metre individual medley. Sunday night, a Canadian record in the 200-metre freestyle.
The Tokyo Games was Ms. McIntosh’s first major international appearance.
She came with the imprimatur of greatness from the last legendary Canadian Olympic swimming debutant, Penny Oleksiak.
“She does not die,” Ms. Oleksiak said then of Ms. McIntosh’s full-bore competitive approach. “It’s all gas, no brakes with her.”
It was hard to connect the war metaphors to the appearance. By elite swimming standards, Ms. McIntosh was a little slip of a thing, still wearing braces. She looked as though she’d sneaked into the Olympics on bring-your-kid-to-work day.
But however unlikely, reporters were primed for Ms. McIntosh to be the story of Canada’s Games. Everybody loves an Olympic standout, but the highest pedestal is reserved for Olympic ingenues. If things lined up just right, Ms. McIntosh could be the next Nadia Comaneci.
Ms. McIntosh almost provided that impossible storyline – she finished fourth in two finals.
It was a good meet for her, but her colleagues had a great one. So a week after she was this country’s maybe-next-big-thing, Ms. McIntosh was put back up on the national cultural shelf. It was presumed she’d get taken back down just before the next Olympics.
As it turns out, the 16-year-old from Toronto is in more of a hurry than that.
Over the weekend, Ms. McIntosh set her second world record at the swim trials. She is the first swimmer to simultaneously hold the career mark for the 400-metre individual medley and the 400-metre freestyle. In land-borne terms, Ms. McIntosh is now the world’s greatest middle-distance runner.
“I’ve been hoping to get a world record, especially in the 400 IM, since I was probably 11 years old,” Ms. McIntosh said afterward, sounding like she’s nearer retirement than she is to Grade 12.
Swimming is weird when it comes to records. At any Olympics, it seems as though two or three get set every day. So we tend to diminish their value. One record might be an outlier – an exceptional person having an exceptional night, perhaps never to be repeated.
But two? Two puts it out of doubt. Two in a week in very different disciplines means this is easy for you.
Ms. McIntosh didn’t even get the benefit of being paced by the best in the world this past week. By the end of both world-record races, she was so far out in front that she may as well have been swimming alone.
If this is the level she can hit when the spotlight is on dimmer, what is she capable of when everyone’s watching? That has just become Canada’s mission statement at the Paris Games. If you’re the sort who likes to harden up plans well ahead of time, keep the afternoons of July 27, 2024, and July 29, 2024, free. The finals of Ms. McIntosh’s two best events will go then. That’s right after the opening ceremony on the 26th.
Canada’s usual mode in any Summer Games is to go in on a high and then wait. And wait. And wait. And sometimes never get what you’re hoping for.
By the time someone does win something worth shouting about, it’s so deep in the Games that it doesn’t feel like fun. It just feels like a relief.
Ms. Oleksiak’s greatest service during Rio 2016 was letting us all off the hook early. No one rated her going into that Games. Not one outlet picked her as a medal possibility. No one knew the name or had seen her swim.
That made her emergence the best sort of surprise. This is the sort of country where no one likes anyone until they’re a big deal somewhere else. ‘Oh, Brooklyn likes Celine Dion now? I guess that means she was okay all along.’
Canada didn’t play that game with Ms. Oleksiak because she was out there introducing herself in real time. Three days after no one had ever heard her name, people back home were acting like they’d known about her the whole time. Very Canadian.
Ms. McIntosh is a different story. Thanks to this past week, she will head into Paris as a major international brand name. Wearing the red and white, but acting as a sort of supra-Canadian. Like how Martin Short is ours, but not really.
The heavyweight title bout in Tokyo was in the 400-metre freestyle – Ariarne Titmus of Australia versus Katie Ledecky of the United States. Both those swimmers should be back in Paris. Take the men’s 100-metre sprint out of it and, on paper, that final is the most can’t-miss TV at the Games.
When was the last time Canada had an athlete looking this dominant in this big a sport this far out from a Summer Games? Ben Johnson? Alex Baumann? Donovan Bailey?
Whoever it is, it’s been decades. Most Canadians won’t know what it feels like to root for that sort of sure thing.
Is that fair? No. But there you go. Ms. McIntosh just appointed herself flag-bearer 16 months out. The pressure will be geological. You get one shot and then you have to – groan – go to university. The few who manage to overcome the hype (see above) are legends forever.
In that sense, there are now two Summer McIntoshes.
There is the one from this week in April, 2023. That one is arguably Canada’s greatest athlete. Who else among us can say they are in peak fighting trim, currently holding two world records in a sport everybody in the world can participate in? No one. That Summer McIntosh is already a national treasure.
Then there’s the Summer McIntosh yet to be in July, 2024.
That Summer McIntosh doesn’t belong to Canada. She’s an international superstar. For a week, with billions watching, she can be as big as Beyoncé. If all goes to plan – “she does not die” – that Summer McIntosh can be a name as well known in Beijing and Brisbane as she is in Barrie.
The Globe and Mail, April 2, 2023