No one can understand what a teen swimming phenom is truly capable of more than someone who’s already been there.
Penny Oleksiak, Canada’s most decorated Olympian, once called Summer McIntosh “all gas, no brakes,” and she was bang on.
The 15-year-old from Toronto raised that reputation to a whole new level Wednesday at the Aquatics World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. She won the 200-metre butterfly — becoming the youngest world champion in a decade — and then, just over an hour and half later, she came back to lead Canada to a bronze medal in the 4×200-metre freestyle relay. She set a blistering time in her leg of the relay that would have won the individual gold in the 200-metre freestyle the night before.
McIntosh’s two-medal day added to the silver medal she previously won in 400-metre freestyle, and bookended Canada’s impressive four-medal day.
Kylie Masse became a world champion once again, this time in 50-metre backstroke, and that gold medal makes her the nation’s most decorated swimmer at the world championships. And 19-year old Joshua Liendo won a bronze medal in 100-metre freestyle, Canada’s first medal for a male swimmer at these championships. He is also the first Black swimmer to win a medal for Canada at the worlds.
Still out of breath after her win in the 200 butterfly, McIntosh was asked what it means to her to be a world champion.
“It means a lot,” she said. “It’s one of my biggest dreams in the swimming world to be world champion.”
McIntosh said “the 200 fly is something I have always wanted to do, which isn’t surprising since it was the event her mother, Jill Horstead, swam at the 1984 L.A. Olympics. But when a 15-year-old talks about something she has “always” wanted to do, it gives an indication of why coaches use works like “mature” and “professional” to describe her.
“She’s a young athlete with a very much older and a very serious approach to the sport,” Swimming Canada coach Ryan Mallette said in an interview ahead of the championships. “She is extremely dedicated. She does everything she can to continue to improve and she’s just a really, really hard worker.”
McIntosh moved to Swimming Canada’s high-performance hub in Toronto during the pandemic to prepare for the Tokyo Games and didn’t skip a beat training alongside Olympians. Coaches say she brings the near-magic elixir of youth and the belief that limits are for other people.
“As someone coming into the group at such a young age she had no real knowledge of what everyday people are capable of doing,” Mallette said. “And so, without knowing that, she never really set limits for herself, and she just improves by leaps and bounds.”
Swimming observers have noted she is capable of setting new personal bests and lowering world junior records practically every time she dives into the pool — and the pressure of representing Canada at a world event, which can be overwhelming, hasn’t changed that one bit.
McIntosh is having her coming-out moment at 15 and at the world championships but she only narrowly missed doing it at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics. She finished just off the podium, in fourth, in the 400 freestyle.
Right after those Games, McIntosh told her coach that she’d like to try racing the 400-metre individual medley, too.
“There are not many people that do 400 free and 400 IM, they’re two extremely hard events and they do take specific training,” Mallette said. “But rather than set a limit and say this isn’t really done we said, ‘OK, let’s give it a try,’ and then she put up the third fastest swim of all time within six months of focusing on it.” That event is still to come at these world championships.
It’s not easy to be thrust into the spotlight at such a young age and Swimming Canada has been taking steps to try to help McIntosh escape the challenges and pressures that other young swimmers have experienced.
Oleksiak, who was just 16 when she went from being a an under-the-radar teen to winning four medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, including gold in the 100 freestyle, has spoken about how challenging that was for her. And Maggie Mac Neil, who won gold in 100 butterfly at the Tokyo Olympics is only competing in relays at these worlds after deciding she needed to reduce pressure for her own mental health.
McIntosh, whose mother travels with her, was not made available for interviews before these championships to help maintain her regular routine.
At the moment, it looks like it’s working for McIntosh, who seems to brush off pressure just like she brushes off limits. When asked how she managed to come down off winning a gold medal to reset herself to race again in the relay with her teammates, she was matter of fact about it.
“I think it was good,” she said. “I still don’t really realize what I just did, to be honest.”
For the record, this is how the world-feed broadcaster covered the final metres of her gold-medal race: “It’s the 15-year-old, the kid, the girl, the champion from Canada who takes the gold medal. Well done, Summer McIntosh.”
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