I t’s nearly the end of a two-hour morning practice at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre pool and five national team members are doing their cool-down laps as Swimming Canada coach Ryan Mallette looks on. Well, four members of the team are cooling down, at least. The girl slicing through the water in lane No. 5 and sporting a bathing cap with “McIntosh” on the side hasn’t slowed down all that much.
While a pair of national team swimmers move at a relaxed-enough pace to discuss the Toronto Raptors and some dream scenario free-agency acquisitions, a few lanes over, Summer McIntosh is moving to the beat of her own fast-paced drum. No teammate is within conversing distance, and the 15-year-old is first to the wall by a healthy margin to finish this first of two practices today.
There’s a running joke on this stacked Canadian team — which includes household names with big medal collections, like Maggie Mac Neil, Kylie Masse and Penny Oleksiak — and it’s that they have to start warmup five minutes before McIntosh does, a rule that also sometimes applies to cool down. “Otherwise, she’ll just kick your butt,” says Mac Neil, the reigning Olympic 100-metre butterfly champion. “That girl does not do anything slowly.”
McIntosh underlined that last point when she qualified as the youngest member of Canada’s Olympic team at the COVID-delayed 2021 Games in Tokyo. The 14-year-old Toronto native narrowly missed a pair of podiums there just weeks after finishing her first year of high school. And then, a month ago, she became the youngest-ever Canadian to win a world swimming title. She actually won two. And in claiming four medals in all, McIntosh tied the record for the most hardware a Canadian has ever brought home from a single long distance world swimming championship. “She’d be like, ‘Oh, it was fun. I was running on adrenaline. I wasn’t nervous,’” says Mac Neil, who roomed with McIntosh in Budapest. “She made it sound so normal. But it’s not normal.”
These results have generated a lot of attention and, you’d think, pressure, but the swimmer responsible for them sure doesn’t seem to be sweating. Instead, McIntosh is ensuring her focus stays on her day-to-day training and working toward what’s ahead. The Commonwealth Games open this week in England, and the 2024 Olympics are fast-approaching. She hasn’t thought about how many podiums she wants to reach at her second Summer Games, when she’s 17. “I think goals can be limiting,” she explains, simply. “For now, I want to keep improving.”
Coming from a swimmer who has already rewritten record books, it’s a scary good thought. And it signals the fact Canada will continue to be a power in the pool, driven in part by a kid who’s not yet old enough to legally drive a car. She’s really close, though: McIntosh can try for her learner’s permit next month.
T he youngest McIntosh sister got her introduction to swimming in the family’s backyard pool, when her dad, Greg, bobbed her up and down in the water, hoping she wouldn’t burst into tears. The not-quite-one-year-old seemed to enjoy the dip, which made a certain kind of sense because of the chlorine in her DNA: Her mom, Jill, was a competitive swimmer who competed at the 1984 Olympics, winning a 200-m. breaststroke B Final to finish ninth overall, and earning a bronze medal in that same event at the 1986 Commonwealth Games.
When it came to swimming, Jill saw the most early potential in Brooke, the eldest of her two kids. It wasn’t until McIntosh was nine years old and with the Lakeshore Swim Club that Jill looked at her boisterous youngest child and thought: “Oooh yeah…” In other words, she realized Summer was pretty fast.
Jill knew how rigorous the highest levels could be, and so McIntosh’s competitive career began relatively slowly. “I remember it was a big decision to go from swimming twice a week to three, and three to four,” Jill says of McIntosh’s early competitive days. When McIntosh switched to the Etobicoke Swim Club at age 10, she swam four times a week compared to peers who were in the water six times. “[The coaches] respected that because they could see she was a bit less hardcore,” Jill explains.
Oh, but McIntosh was hardcore when it came to results. Her grade school gym teacher had to stop her and a friend named Sam when they ran the beep test, instead of letting them get tired enough to stop on their own. “They were afraid the kids were going to collapse,” Jill says. “Summer is very good at pushing her body.”
While she was a solid runner and powerful figure skater, it was swimming that grabbed McIntosh early. “I always just loved it,” she says, her five-foot-nine frame curled up on an L-shaped couch in her family’s living room. “I think it’s very simple but can also be very complex. It’s simple: you touch the wall first, you win. But also, there’s the race strategy and different techniques and your splits and how much everything can change in the last few metres of a race.” McIntosh loves the team aspect of relays. She also enjoys training alongside both men and women. “That’s something that’s pretty unique to swimming,” she points out.
One of the men in her training group is Josh Liendo, who’s four years older than McIntosh and also grew up swimming in the Toronto area. “I would be at the same meets as her, and I always heard about her, starting when she was 11 or 12,” says Liendo, who won three medals at the recent world championships. “Then I actually started watching her and seeing her lap people her age, doing some crazy stuff. But even then, sometimes you get those age-group swimmers where, yeah, they’re just really fast for their age, but you don’t hear much about them after that.”
Mac Neil first became aware of McIntosh’s success around the time Liendo did. “I read that there was this phenom Summer McIntosh who was going and breaking all the provincial age group national records, senior records, everything,” Mac Neil says, and she took notice because that included her age 11-12 200-m. butterfly short-course provincial record, which McIntosh now owns. “But I don’t think I expected our paths to cross so soon.”
In June of 2020, a 13-year-old McIntosh began training at the Pan Am Centre with the national team group. “That’s when I realized: She’s not just putting up good times for her age, she’s putting up times that are world class,” Liendo says, eyebrows up. “She was really good swimming against [the top] women in the world.”
Mallette will never forget McIntosh’s first few training swims with his group. “Normally when someone starts with us, you’re swimming with Olympic medallists and world championship medallists, and they’re very timid at first. They don’t go to the front of the lanes, they don’t beat everybody,” he says. “But Summer was never timid. She was beating a lot of swimmers from Day 1 in training. She wasn’t shy in how she swam. And she immediately raised the bar for the program.”
“Literally my first session with her, she was a step ahead of everyone,” says McIntosh’s 21-year-old teammate, Finlay Knox. “When you see that, it pushes you. I try to do that now as well.”
Liendo is a sprinter, and he noticed that McIntosh gives a little extra when the whole group is asked to swim at, say, 60-per cent effort. So, now he sprints near the end of those sets. “And then I joke around, like, ‘Yeah, I beat you!’” he says, laughing. “It’s a 14- or 15-year-old, but I’m pretty proud of myself.” Liendo turns 20 in August.
Outside of the water in those early days, McIntosh was too nervous to strike up conversation with some of the swimmers she’d long looked up to. In the water, she chalks up her approach to natural competitiveness, and the fact that she’s often doing her training sets solo, especially last year when she was the lone swimmer in the group solely focused on distance freestyle events. “I would get really excited to race people in practice when I had the opportunity to,” she says. “That’s when I really thrived.”
While the Olympics seemed a “long-shot” for a 13-year-old McIntosh in the summer of 2020, once the Games were delayed to 2021, it was a goal she felt was in reach. And while she was working toward it, McIntosh was also working through some of the most difficult moments of her life. First, in April of 2020, came the sudden death of her coach, Kevin Thorburn, who had an incredible impact on not only her, but dozens of elite Canadian swimmers. And then, less than a year later, her father was diagnosed with throat cancer and had to go through chemotherapy. The day after McIntosh found out about Greg’s cancer is the only swim practice she has ever missed. “I remember she was crying and she said to me, ‘Mom, I just want to be with Dad and Brooke,’” Jill says. “It was a really, really difficult time.”
Greg has now fully recovered, but while he underwent treatment, doctors told the McIntosh family to keep him isolated to reduce the risk of COVID worsening his condition. The rest of the family supported him as best they could. They also tried to continue as usual with their routines. Brooke resumed figure skating (she’s a national-level pairs skater), and McIntosh returned to swim practice the next day, still working toward that Olympic berth.
In May of 2021, she edged Oleksiak in the 200-m. freestyle Olympic Trials final, earning the A standard she needed to send her to the Games. “I just remember thinking: ‘Oh my god, this actually happened,” McIntosh says.
There was no surprise among her teammates. “We’d all seen her train throughout COVID,” Mac Neil says. “You could see her trajectory.”
In Tokyo, McIntosh placed fourth in the 400-m. freestyle and set a Canadian record. She also came fourth in the 4×200-m. freestyle relay alongside her three 20-something teammates, Oleksiak, Kayla Sanchez and Rebecca Smith, and narrowly missed qualifying for the 200-m. freestyle final. Throughout the Games, Liendo, an Olympic rookie himself, was struck by how comfortable McIntosh looked on the world stage at age 14. “You can’t teach that,” he says, shaking his head.
McIntosh may have been 14 and breaking age-group and Canadian records, but she wasn’t entirely satisfied with her performance at the Olympics. “She said, ‘It could’ve been better,”’ Mallette recalls. “She was determined to be better.”
“Fourth is obviously a difficult place to come, but I was content with fourth, because it obviously adds a lot of hunger going into the next few seasons of swimming,” McIntosh explains. “I was also content with it because in training every day leading up to the Olympics, I’d maximized my abilities.”
Mac Neil was also McIntosh’s roommate in Tokyo, and in Abu Dhabi in December of that year at the short course world championships (McIntosh won three medals there, including an individual silver in the 400-m. freestyle). “It’s definitely been a crazy progression for her,” Mac Neil says. “And she’s seemed to stay so grounded. I wouldn’t say the pressure gets to her much, which is impressive, especially at that age. It’s been amazing watching her grow and progress and also stay very true to herself in the process.”
Mac Neil adds, with a laugh: “I mean, I don’t remember what I was doing at 15, but it definitely wasn’t that.”
H er morning practice is in the books for the day, and it’s a rare afternoon when McIntosh doesn’t have a swim. She’s relaxing in her family’s living room, wearing a white sweatshirt and matching shorts. “It’s brand new,” she says of her outfit, which explains why it’s immaculately white. Her long blonde hair is blow dried, she’s sporting pearls in her ears and long light pink fake nails that she can’t wear during competitions because she’ll rip her racing suit. She learned that the hard way.
McIntosh got her braces off just yesterday, and she flashes a smile. “It feels amazing,” she says. She’s not too excited about having to wear a retainer, though Jill reminds her daughter that her teeth will go back to their crooked ways if she doesn’t. McIntosh needs to get her retainer refitted before she leaves for the Commonwealth Games, which she thinks is in a couple weeks. Jill pipes up from the kitchen: “You’re actually leaving in a week.” McIntosh meets that news with raised eyebrows.
When she’s outside the pool, there are many ways in which it’s clear McIntosh is a teenager, not a kid who’s grown up too fast because of her success. She’s almost too embarrassed to show you her autograph, which is her initials, designed to look like a fish. “You can totally tell I’m 15!” she says, after scrawling it on a piece of paper. “I really need to work on it.”
Most of her teammates are young, but McIntosh is another level. “Josh is almost 20, I’m 21, and we’re considered young male athletes in the sport of swimming, and she makes us feel old,” Knox says, laughing. They’re reminded of her age when she’s chatting with other young teammates, or blissfully unaware of the road rage that can come with having to drive to the pool twice most days (Brooke often kindly drives her). McIntosh’s love of shopping, cleaning (she travels with a Magic Eraser to clean scuff marks off her suitcase) and reality star Kim Kardashian are well-known among her teammates. “She’s invested with the Kardashians — like, she knows everything,” Liendo says.
There’s a youthful bliss to her swimming, too. “Honestly the best thing about her accomplishing so much right now is that she’s literally just having fun,” Knox says. “You see some people put a lot of pressure on themselves, and they get anxious. Summer’s getting in the zone, but you can see she’s here to have fun and enjoy the moment.”
Wednesday mornings are the group’s toughest workouts, and McIntosh always sports what she calls her “signature suit” for that workout. Last year, it was a T-Rex swimsuit. “Anytime we saw it, it was, ‘Look out, Summer’s gonna go fast, she’s got the Dino suit on!’” Knox says, grinning. This season, that signature suit is a sunrise scene, but McIntosh plans to up her game: “I need to find a good one for next year, maybe another animal,” she says.
The excitement in training was also ramped up this year for McIntosh, since after focusing on freestyle in the lead-up to the Olympics, she told Mallette she wanted to reintroduce the 200-m. butterfly and 400-m. individual medley. “She didn’t want to limit herself,” the coach says. “I’ve never seen her rest on her laurels. Every day, she’s pushing me to push her harder.”
“Reintroducing has been fun, like training butterfly and IM, it’s been so fun to do all four strokes together,” McIntosh says. The fact that she began focusing on those events this season and is now world champion in both makes McIntosh laugh and shrug and try to change the subject. “I don’t like to talk about myself or my achievements,” she says.
As far as those achievements go, McIntosh admits what she accomplished this summer hasn’t quite sunk in. That included her two gold medals, a silver behind only the great Katie Ledecky in the 400-m. freestyle, and a time so fast in her leg of the 200-m. freestyle — where Canada won bronze — that it would’ve won her gold in the individual event. “I don’t think it’ll ever sink in,” she says. “I’m still in a little bit of shock.”
Liendo can see that. He’s told her how amazing it is to do what she’s doing at her age, to swim not only so fast but so maturely. “But she just brushes it off, like, ‘Nah, you did really well, too,’” he says. “She’s funny.”
Jill and Greg were in the crowd in Budapest, and Jill has a hard time picking out her daughter’s most impressive race, but she settles on the 200-m. butterfly, the same race she specialized in, as perhaps McIntosh’s smartest. “She wasn’t out in the lead, she was almost patient,” Jill says. “I couldn’t even tell — like, I wonder if Summer has another gear, or is she fading? But the last three strokes she took before the last turn I said to my husband: ‘She has another gear.’ I was so proud of how she swam that race.”
When McIntosh got back to Toronto and back to training, she pointed out areas for improvement to Mallette, in all of her races. “Already she’s like, ‘Well, this could be better,’ even though she’s talking about gold medal swims,” he says. “But the next time they’ll have to be faster swims to win gold, and she’s already thinking about those next swims.”
McIntosh will swim a different set of events at the Commonwealth Games and going forward as she works toward finding the right balance for the 2024 Olympics. “It’s a challenge, because she can be good at anything she wants, almost, but it’s seeing where she wants to go with it,” Mallette says. “She’s done everything she’s put her mind to so far, that’s for sure.” McIntosh is the only woman in swimming history to go both sub-four minutes in the 400-m. freestyle and sub-4:30 in the 400-m. IM.
“People love to ask, ‘What is her limit?’” Knox says. “Well, the limit is whatever Summer wants it to be.”
“I think she’s going to explore as many events as she can — she finds it fun,” Jill adds. “My interesting thing is to see where she gravitates to as far as events go when she gets older.”
By the time the Los Angeles Summer Games take place, in 2028, McIntosh will be 21. “When we were in Tokyo, she’s like, ‘I’m going to be so old at the L.A. Olympics,” Mac Neil says, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Oh yeah?’” Mac Neil was 21 in Tokyo. “I looked at her and I was like, ‘Thanks!’” Mac Neil says. “I do think I’m quite young in the sport, but I’m reminded how old I am when I’m with Summer. And it just brings joy.”
When the Canadian Olympic swim team was all gathered together just before the Tokyo Games began, athletes were doing some team-building exercises, and one of the tasks was to stand up and name the super power they wished they had. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, what am I gonna say?’” McIntosh says. “I could say I want to fly, but that’s very basic and I wanted to be a little different. I was freaking out, my heart was beating so fast. But then I was like, okay, I think about this all the time.”
McIntosh stood up and she said: “My super power would be to never age.” And her entire team, including then-37-year-old Brent Hayden, burst into laughter.