At just 15-years-old, Canada’s Summer McIntosh is already in the world’s top swimming tier. After making an Olympic 400m freestyle final in Tokyo last year, she followed that up in 2022 with the fastest 400m IM time in six years at a non-championship meet in March. With that time of 4:29.12, she moved up to third all time, while she ranks in the top-25 all-time in two other events.
Summer McIntosh isn’t exactly an unknown in swimming, but that swim came as a surprise to those who only knew her as a 200/400 freestyler. Last summer, she nearly reached the Olympic podium twice - a pair of fourth-place finishes in the 400 free and 4x200 free relay, just a few weeks away from her 15th birthday. She also finished ninth in the 200 free and 11th in the 800 freestyle.
Swimming on the sport’s biggest stage wasn’t too much of a fright for the Toronto-based teenager that trains with some of the best swimmers in Canada at the High Performance Center in Ontario. That group is riddled with stars, including 2016 Olympic gold medalist Penny Oleksiak, as well as two-time silver medalist from Tokyo, Kylie Masse.
In fact, ten members of Canada’s Olympic swim team last year came from the HPC Ontario group. This provided some form of comfort for the rookie McIntosh to be able to see a number of familiar faces at her first international meet. And with no spectators permitted at the entirety of the Games, it took a little stress off of her to be able to treat the Olympics as any other meet.
“There was definitely a lot of energy on deck even without the spectators,” McIntosh told FINA. “I would walk to the warm-up pool and I would see really famous swimmers there and I had never been able to see them in person, and to kind of be on the same level of competition as them is such an honour. It was really cool to see that they are normal people too and they’re here to race and swim fast.”
Her Tokyo dreams started in 2019 when she was 13 when the possibility of making the team in the 1500m was deemed a longshot by herself and her coaches. Her goals were ambitious, but she comes from a family of world-class athletes - her mother Jill raced for Canada in the 1984 Olympics in the 200 butterfly, while her sister Brooke, a year and a half older than Summer, most recently won a bronze in pairs figure skating at the World Junior Championships this past April.
McIntosh had been involved in a number of sports growing up - soccer, gymnastics, figure skating, horseback riding, artistic swimming, in addition to being a swimmer. It was at age seven when she fully committed to being a swimmer, choosing the water over the ice of figure skating, admitting that she was a better skater at the time, while her sister was considered a better swimmer.
“It was a little ironic we chose what we were worse at,” McIntosh said.
Having a parent that was also an elite swimmer comes with its benefits when faced with the day to day struggles of being an athlete.
“I just noticed throughout my swimming career my mom has been able to understand where I’m coming from when I have a bad race or a bad practice, and (when we) talk about swimming in general. She is really able to grasp the concept and understand where I’m coming from and that has been really helpful just so I can talk to her on the same level. She has been a great support throughout my career.”
By the time she was a teenager, she was one of the top swimmers in Canada, and ready to take aim at the Olympic team for Tokyo. But while at home during the COVID lockdown in April 2020, her longtime coach Kevin Thorburn passed away. With her Olympic dream still very much alive, she made the decision to move training locations to the High Performance Center in Ontario, where the then-coach Ben Titley took her in with open arms.
“That was probably one of the craziest four months of my life with my coach passing away and not really knowing what I was going to do when we were able to get back into swimming,” McIntosh said. “I thought about and considered a lot of different places to go and continue on with my swimming career and it came down to the center and to this day I am really grateful I made that option and took the chance of joining a new team and I am really grateful they allowed me to join even without not really knowing about me.”
McIntosh is the youngest swimmer at the Center, with the next closest in age being 17. Joining any new group can be intimidating, especially when a number of them are in their early 20s and have already swum at the biggest meets in the world. But they were immediately welcoming to the young McIntosh, and she still feels like a normal teenager outside of the pool. Schoolwork dominates her out of the pool time, but on weekends she has sleepovers with her friends and frequents her cottage in Muskoka, allowing herself to balance being a world-class swimmer and a normal person.
Going from a club team to a professional training center comes with a lot of changes, including more individualistic and stroke-specific work, as well as an increased amount of strength training, that McIntosh has taken in stride. In addition to her world-leading 400m IM, she set the national record in the 400m freestyle (4:01.59) at the Canadian World Trials in April.
“To go and get another experience under my belt heading into Worlds was pretty crucial just because I’ve only swam the 400 freestyle at the speed and execution that I’ve wanted to so many times and the more experience I can get before doing it on the world stage is really important.”
She also sits third in the world in the 200m free (1:55.39) and 200m fly (2:07.60) with her swims this year. After a year of mainly training for distance freestyle, she approached coach Ryan Mallette to switch to event focuses to those she had excelled in before - namely the 200m fly and 400m IM.
“That’s really what I wanted to do and I think I will reach my greatest potential in (those events), so that’s why I switched back (to fly and IM). It was definitely more of my decision than my coaches. I brought it up to them and there was definitely a little pushback but they have helped me overall with being able to ramp back up really quickly in both the IM and the fly.”
In preparation for her first World Championships, she will be racing the 200m and 400m free, the 200m fly, and the 400m IM, where podium appearances are within reach in all four. Canada also returns the entirety of its national record-setting 4x200m free relay from last year that finished fourth. The relay is anyone’s game at the moment, and McIntosh could be in for a big medal haul if all goes in her favour. But medals aren’t the main focus for her, with race execution taking the top priority every time she steps up behind the blocks.
“I think each race I am excited for different reasons, there’s not one race that stands out. Overall, I’m just excited about my schedule and to get swimming and to get started."