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At the World Cup in Toronto last October, the double world champion was surrounded by young swimmers, a mob jostling for position to get an autograph, photo or just a moment with one of their swimming heroes.
Like a veteran professional, Summer McIntosh deftly signed caps and shirts, or even shared a nugget of wisdom like a veteran who has been at the top of her sport for years.
There’s just one thing.
“At 16, I don’t know if I’m very wise,” she says with a laugh when asked to reflect on the moment.
In many ways, McIntosh seems like a “normal” teenager at first glance. But when you speak to her about her amazing accomplishments, she doesn’t come off like most 16-year-olds.
McIntosh is a focused, driven athlete who carved out her place on the world scene last year. She won two gold medals at the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, as well as a silver and relay bronze. She added two more gold and a silver individually at the Commonwealth Games in Budapest, to go with two silver and a bronze in relays.
For her accomplishments she is being named Swimming Canada’s Female Swimmer of the Year (Olympic Program) for 2022. She’s also the Junior Female Swimmer of the Year for the second year in a row.
“Last year was quite a long season. I did so much over the few months and I improved so much I think in so many different ways. I’ve learned so much from others and my coaches,” McIntosh says.
McIntosh skipped right over the National Development Team Program and made her national team debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021, where she finished fourth in the 400-m freestyle, and helped Canada to a fourth-place finish in the 4×200 free relay, both in Canadian record time.
If she broke out in Tokyo, 2022 proved she is most definitely out. Her 200-m butterfly win in Budapest made her the youngest Canadian to take gold at a best-on-best long-course meet (World Championships or Olympic Games). She instantly became one of Canada’s most accomplished swimmers in history and the impressive swims just kept coming.
Heading into the 200 fly, McIntosh already had 400-m silver under her belt, finishing behind only American legend Katie Ledecky.
It was her first long-course world championships and first major meet with a large crowd in the stands. She remembers battling nerves and managing her energy levels through the three rounds of heat and semifinal on Day 4 to the final the next night. As for the historic 200-m butterfly race itself, she doesn’t remember most of it.
She was the last to walk on deck to assume her place in Lane 4 as the fastest seed from semifinals. Two minutes, 5.20 seconds later she was the first to touch the wall.
Swimming in between decorated American medallists Regan Smith and Hali Flickinger, McIntosh was third at the first turn behind Smith and leader Zhang Yufei, the Olympic champion from China. At the halfway mark she was behind only Smith, and that by just 0.01. By the final wall she had taken the lead by just over a quarter-second.
“I don’t really remember the first 150 at all, but that race was probably the most adrenaline I’ve ever had,” she recalls.
“She’s careering away!” exclaimed longtime swimming voice Mike McCann as McIntosh held off Zhang, Smith and Flickinger. “It’s the 15-year-old! The kid! The girl! The champion from Canada!”
“That last 50 I remember so vividly seeing Regan and Hali on either side of me and trying to get through to the wall. That last 50 felt so long but I had so much adrenaline and cheering from the crowd that got me to the end,” McIntosh says.
As McIntosh turned to see the result on the scoreboard she allowed herself a slight smile and exchanged congratulatory handshakes with her competitors on either side. She had set the world junior and Canadian records in the event (which she’s already lowered again.)
“It was my first gold medal at the world level. I didn’t think I was going to be able to accomplish that, and to do that with not much fly training was really cool,” McIntosh says.
So how did she manage the nerves and extra adrenalin – not to mention extra eyeballs – that came with competing in finals at her first worlds?
“I’d say just knowing what I want to do in the race, how I want to swim it a few days prior. Not to think about it an hour before the race. Then I have a very planned out schedule for race day. I know exactly what I want to do. I keep it low stress, try to stay calm, take deep breaths in the ready room, some arm swings. I try not to make it too serious a thing, keep it fun and light-hearted.”
And she wasn’t done yet. McIntosh immediately turned her focus to managing herself through to the 400-m individual medley on the final day of the eight-day championships.
“I obviously wanted to appreciate it and enjoy the moment, but I still had races to go. I didn’t want to get overly happy and excited,” she says. “I needed to stay my most prepared, most in shape. That’s something I’ve continued to learn ways to do. It’s one of the hardest things to balance being in the moment but looking forward enough to know you still have to compete.”
There’s that wisdom beyond her years thing again. Although her internal drive is unquestionable, she credits her Canadian teammates for setting a tone of professionalism on the national team.
“I still have a lot of learning to do. I definitely don’t recover properly enough,” McIntosh says. “Finding what works for you is most important. I take a little bit from everyone, seeing how everyone goes about things in a very similar way that works for them. Everyone has a similar attitude of being excited but level-headed at the same time, not letting that excitement blind you going into a race. Also, having fun with it and being confident in your training to execute your races properly. That’s what I’ve learned from everyone on Team Canada.”
With two major meets on the summer calendar due to COVID postponements compressing the schedule, McIntosh went on to Commonwealth Games to take on different challenges. She was a heavy favourite for 200 fly gold again against a thinner field in Birmingham, but instead chose to rest that day and invest all her energy in a tough 400-m freestyle showdown with Australia’s Ariarne Titmus.
McIntosh finished second after a gutsy effort against the Olympic champion, who had skipped worlds to focus on the Games. Then she hopped into the diving tank for a quick warm down before joining Kylie Masse, Sophie Angus and Maggie Mac Neil to anchor on the medley relay – suddenly Canada’s sprinter. It was a “what can’t she do” moment and Canada took home another silver because of it.
“I warmed down in the dive tank, was doing backstroke and saw hundreds of people in the stands,” she recalls. “I had 10 minutes, into the ready room and then anchor for the relay I hadn’t even been on before. It was my last race of the season and that was so fun.”
The biggest difference between 2021 and 2022 for McIntosh was her agency in it. In 2021 she and her coaches made the strategic decision to focus on distance freestyle as her best shot to make the Olympic team. That goal accomplished, she wanted to focus on her preferred butterfly and individual medley events.
“The most mentally challenging part was relearning how to swim the IM and 2 fly because the previous year was so focused on distance freestyle. The most challenging is the most fun, though, and what keeps me motivated to keep on pushing,” she says.
High Performance Centre – Ontario Head Coach Ryan Mallette embraced the challenge with her.
“Summer is just so professional and focused. She knows exactly what she wants and she does everything she can to achieve it,” Mallette said. “It is nice to be a part of it and it was awesome to see her last year spread beyond the Olympics. To see her at the capacity to be the best in the world in multiple events across different categories is an unbelievable thing to be a part of. And it was it was fun to try and figure out how to help her do those things.”
The world is waiting to see Titmus, Ledecky and McIntosh go head-to-head-to-head. Titmus is the only person to beat Ledecky in the 400 free long course, and McIntosh accomplished the feat in the 25-m pool at that World Cup where the young swimmers were flocking for her autograph (and wisdom).
“That was really cool to swim at a world level meet (at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre) where I used to train every day,” she says. “To see the Canadians, all the fans and younger kids asking for pics, I always feel their support going into races. It hasn’t been that long at all since I was the kid in the stands watching.
“I hope to inspire people and I’m cheering them all on,” she says. “Canadian swimming has a very bright future.”
She’s working on little things every day at her new training base under Brent Arckey with the Sarasota Sharks in Florida. After a recent practice it was a specific tweak to her arm movement.
“I was focusing on my freestyle right arm, little small things and details that a lot of people don’t realize make a big difference in the long run,” she says. “I make sure I’m doing smalls teps daily. If you can’t do small steps, you can’t do big steps. It’s easiest for me to focus on small steps.”
McIntosh acknowledges she will never be literally perfect, but that won’t stop her from striving for her own version of perfect.
“I’m a competitive person so I strive for perfection. Even though it’s something I’m never going to achieve I want to be close to it for me personally,” she says. “Perfection for me is to daily keep improving on small things that will lead to whatever I’m personally capable of. I don’t know what that is yet obviously.
McIntosh set Canadian and world junior records all three days of the recent Pro Swim Series meet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Next up is the 2023 Bell Canadian Swimming Trials at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre March 28-April 2 where she will be focused on solidifying her national team spot for the World Aquatics Championships in Japan this summer.
“I’m driven to be the best I can be. I don’t know what that is but I love this sport so much. I have so much passion and love for it I’m willing to do whatever it takes to be the best I can be, achieve whatever I can and leave my legacy in my favourite sport.”