Canadian swimming phenom Summer McIntosh poised for her moment on Olympics podium

June 11, 2024

Not too long ago, Summer McIntosh did nothing but look up to Katie Ledecky — literally staring up to a swim cap belonging to the American icon, thumb tacked onto a bedroom wall.

Now, the Canadian wunderkind could be on the verge of swimming away with her longtime idol’s crown as the sport’s most famous female competitor.

The 17-year-old shook up the swimming’s world order back in February, with a spectacular 800-meter freestyle win over Ledecky at the Southern Zone South Sectional Championships in Orlando.

Her phenomenal time of 8 minutes and 11.39 seconds bested Ledecky by nearly 6 seconds, in the American’s first setback in a competitive race at that distance since 2010.

To understand how dominant McIntosh was that day, her Orlando time would’ve won gold at the Tokyo Olympics where Ledecky topped the podium at 8:12.57.

“This last year has been amazing,” The Canadian Press’ 2023 female athlete of the year, McIntosh, told NBC News recently. “Lots of things have happened to me in the pool and I’m just so grateful for it all. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve grown a lot.”

Let’s get to know Canadian swimmer and Olympic medal hopeful Summer McIntosh

  • Career highlight: She beat Katie Ledecky in a 800-meter freestyle race on Feb. 8, ending the American’s winning streak at that distance that had gone back to 2010.
  • Go-to daily dish: Chocolate chip pancakes for pre-dawn breakfast and again for breakfast No. 2 after morning training.
  • Her name “Summer” was inspired by Fox’s teen drama “The O.C.” and Rachel Bilson‘s character; though McIntosh said she’s not at all familiar with the show.
  • The family has three cats back in Toronto, one of them named “Mikey” in honor of all-time swimming great Michael Phelps.
  • Older sister Brooke McIntosh won pairs bronze at the 2022 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. Mother Jill Horstead finished ninth in the 200 butterfly at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
  • Pre-race hype music: Toronto’s own Drake.

The Toronto native, who trains in Sarasota, Florida, recalled once having a swimming cap used by Ledecky pinned to her wall as recently as 2019, dreaming of a day she too could be an elite competitor.

The then-preteen said she had no realistic hopes of someday being in the same pool with Ledecky, much less touching a wall ahead of the seven-time gold medalist.

Summer McIntosh after winning the Woman's 400m Freestyle Final during day one of the FINA Swimming World Cup at the Pan Am Sports Centre in Toronto
Summer McIntosh at the FINA Swimming World Cup in Toronto, on Oct. 28, 2022. Gregory Shamus / Getty Images file

“No, definitely not (thinking of competing against Ledecky back then) and definitely not in 2019, I wasn’t focusing on distance” races like the 800, McIntosh said.

Since that shocking February win over Ledecky, McIntosh hasn’t let up.

She broke her own world record in the 400-meter individual medley at Canada’s Olympic Swimming Trials on May 16, clocking in at 4 minutes and 24.38 seconds.

NBC swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines, who won 100-meter-freestyle gold in 1984, said Americans might not know who McIntosh is now — but they will soon enough.

“Summer McIntosh is the single best overall swimmer in the world today. There really isn’t anybody better,” said the three-time gold medalist Gaines. “A lot of people will know that name by the end of summer.” 

Gaines’ only semi-humorous critique of McIntosh might be that she’s too good, in too many disciplines.

The American swimming icon predicted that Team Canada would likely sit McIntosh in the 800 — the race that put her on the map in nonswimming circles — to conserve the teen’s stamina for the 200 IM, 400 IM, 200 butterfly, 200 free and 400 free.

“She’ll be the heavy favorite in the 400 IM (and 200 IM), nobody is going to beat her in those two events,” Gaines said.

And McIntosh will surely play key roles in relays for Team Canada, making her one of the busiest swimmers in Paris.

From left, Summer McIntosh, Katie Ledecky, and Leah Smith during a medal ceremony during the Budapest 2022 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary
From left, Summer McIntosh, Katie Ledecky, and Leah Smith at the Budapest 2022 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, on June 18, 2022. Tom Pennington / Getty Images file

Ledecky’s gold medals have come in the 1500 free, 800 free (three times), 200 free, 400 free and 4×200 free relay.

So it’s likely that Ledecky and McIntosh will face off multiple times in Paris, though the Canadian hopes this competition won’t be billed as a bitter battle of swimming titans.

She speaks in terms of pure reverence for Ledecky, who is 27.

“The amount of respect I have for her is unreal,” McIntosh said, “for what she’s done with the community and the sport of swimming is incredible.”

Even as she focuses on Paris, McIntosh admitted she also has an eye on Los Angeles in the unthinkably far (in teen years) future of 2028.

The swimmer’s mother, now Jill McIntosh, finished ninth for Canada in the 200 butterfly at the 1984 games in L.A.

“That would be really, really cool (swimming for Canada at the 2028 Los Angeles games) and would be a full circle moment,” McIntosh said. “So I’m definitely focused on the territory of now (Paris). But after that, the next Olympics cycle, it’ll be so (relatively) close to home as well, so it’d be awesome.”

McIntosh insists she and her husband haven’t directed Summer and figure skating sister Brooke McIntosh toward elite sports.

She pushed back on any notion that her daughters are making undue “sacrifice” to pursue Olympic dreams.

“I don’t think of myself or my husband or either one of my girls are making any kind of ‘sacrifice,'” she said. “They look at it as an opportunity to pursue excellence in a very unique way versus being your regular teenager.”

By winning the The Canadian Press female athlete of the year honor last year, McIntosh has already etched her name into the same class as national icons such as soccer’s Christine Sinclair and hockey’s Hayley Wickenheiser.

Carrying the weight a nation’s sporting hopes isn’t lost on the swimmer’s family.

“They realize the honor it is to represent your country and the opportunity to meet people from around the world, travel around the world, learn the discipline of a sport, learn how to be a gracious competitor, learn how to win, learn how to lose,” the athletes’ mother said.

Despite McIntosh’s young age, Paris will mark her second Olympic trip.

She finished ninth in the 200 free at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games. Australian Ariarne Titmus, Hong Kong’s Siobhan Haughey and Canadian teammate Penny Oleksiak took that podium. Ledecky finished fifth.

McIntosh finished fourth in the 400 free in Tokyo, behind Titmus, Ledecky and China’s Li Bingjie.

McIntosh, Kayla Sanchez, Rebecca Smith and Oleksiak set a Canadian record in the 4×200 free relay with a time of 7 minutes and 43.77 seconds in Tokyo to finish fourth behind golden China, the silver Americans and bronze Australians.

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