Advertisement
City

“Drake gets me hyped up”: Swimming phenom Summer McIntosh on smashing two world records

The newly minted superstar talks training secrets, the Kardashians and how she’s really just a regular teen (who’s been to the Olympics)

“Drake gets me hyped up”: Swimming phenom Summer McIntosh on smashing two world records

At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Summer McIntosh was a high-school freshman brimming with promise but overshadowed by hotshot teammates Penny Oleksiak and Maggie Mac Neil. Now, following two years of intense training and record-shattering performances at the Canadian world trials earlier this month, McIntosh is being hailed as a once-in-a-generation athlete sure to own the podium at the Paris Olympics next summer. It’s a lot to process, but the 16-year-old from Etobicoke is determined to take life one race at a time.


Two weeks ago, you set personal bests, national bests and world records at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre. Which win are you most proud of? Probably the 400-metre individual medley. Breaking that world record is something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid, because it’s the most gruelling race that I do at a high level, and it includes all of the major strokes. It was great to see my training pay off.

What gave you the edge? I think a lot of it came from my backstroke, plus my turns have gotten faster and I’ve gotten better at switching quickly between strokes. I was doing the breaststroke lap when I started hearing cheers from the crowd, which was so surreal. Normally you don’t hear them in the pool because your head is mostly submerged and you’re so focused. It was cool because so many of my family members and friends were there, cheering me on.

It’s often said that, in elite sports, the mental game is just as important as the physical one. How were you feeling going into the trials? By the time you get to the competition, all of the physical work is done, so it really can come down to what’s going on in your head. There are athletes who like to visualize everything, down to the second, in order to feel confident. I try to disassociate and forget the actual competition; that way, it’s just another race, whether it’s a qualifying round or the Olympics. I focus on all the training I’ve done, and that’s where my confidence comes from. Then I tell myself to just relax and have fun, which isn’t easy with all the pressure. But, the more you do it, the more you know what works for you.

What works for you when it comes to relaxing? I try to keep my pre-competition routine as low-key as possible. I’ll fill the day before a race with things that help me wind down, like my favourite TV shows, and stay off social media.

What were you binging during the Canadian trials earlier this month? Mostly Keeping Up With the Kardashians. It has, like, 20 seasons, and I’ve still seen most of the episodes multiple times. I love it.

Are you a Kim, a Kortney or a Khloe? Definitely a Kim, but I like them all.

Advertisement

Did you get a chance to celebrate your world records? Afterward, a bunch of us went back to one of our friend’s houses and just hung out, which was so fun. My mom and I moved to Florida last October so I could train there, so I don’t get to see my friends as much as I’d like to. Then I took two days off and mostly napped. Now I’m back to training full time and getting ready for the Worlds in Japan this summer.

Your teammate Penny Oleksiak recently described your style as “all gas, no brakes.” I think she’s referring to my approach, which is pretty fearless. I tend to give everything in the first half and then hold on for dear life in the second. It’s a work in progress.

Do you have any sense of how much public perception of you has shifted in the past few weeks? Coming into 2023, you were a rising star, but now people are calling you “the greatest Canadian athlete.” That sort of thing really isn’t on my radar. I definitely would not consider myself the best Canadian athlete. I guess it’s an honour just to be in the conversation.

You’re also being referred to as “the next Penny Oleksiak.” That must be sort of weird since she’s your teammate and still very much in the game. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Penny and I are very different in terms of our events: she’s 100 and 200 metres whereas I’m more of a mid-distance swimmer. But she is definitely someone I have looked up to. I met her for the first time when I was nine years old, when she qualified for her first Olympics in Rio. My sister and I were on deck because our mom is part of the alumni, and we got a picture with Penny. I wouldn’t say I’m the next anyone, though. I’m the next Summer McIntosh.

Toronto swimmer Summer McIntosh breaks two world records

You mom, Jill, swam for Canada at the 1984 Olympics. Did you always want to follow in her footsteps? I think it was less about swimming in particular and more about wanting to compete at an Olympic level like my mom. As a kid I tried pretty much every sport you can think of—horseback riding, soccer, gymnastics, figure skating—before eventually deciding on swimming. I was competitive at everything, even board games and cards.

Advertisement

Now you’re a competitive swimmer, and your sister, Brooke, is a competitive figure skater. Do you ever wonder what life would be like if you had chosen differently? We joke about it, because there was a time when I would say that I was the better skater and my sister was the better swimmer, but I’m definitely happy with how things worked out. I’m way too tall for skating.

And your name is Summer. Yeah, exactly. Not a good fit.

What does your life outside of swimming look like? I stopped doing regular school after Grade 8 because my training schedule is intense and remote learning works best. Most of my friends are people I have trained with, even at home in Toronto. I’ve made new friends in Florida too. We’re all swimmers, but we’re also just normal teenagers. We like to shop, watch movies and go to the beach.

The beach? After all that time in the pool? Yes, but sometimes we’ll go to the beach and not even go into the ocean, because we’ve already had so much time in the water and it can be really bad for your hair and your skin. You have no idea how much conditioner and moisturizer I use. It’s better in Florida than it is in Canada, though. In the winter it sometimes feels like your skin is going to crack.

Sounds like someone needs a hair care sponsor. Ha! That would be amazing.

Advertisement

Any big plans with your friends this weekend? I’m actually going to see Taylor Swift in Tampa.

Are you a Swiftie? I like Taylor, and I know a lot of her songs because the girls down here are totally obsessed, but I’m more of a hip hop person. I love anything that gets me hyped up for practice, like Drake.

Excellent Toronto namecheck. What do you miss most about home when you’re away? Definitely my family. And my cats, Mikey and Riley. Whenever I come home, they seem to really hate me for the first hour or so, like they’re mad that I was gone. But then they’re all over me until I leave.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

NEVER MISS A TORONTO LIFE STORY

Sign up for This City, our free newsletter about everything that matters right now in Toronto politics, sports, business, culture, society and more.

By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy.
You may unsubscribe at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The Latest

The Questionnaire: Three indie brewers on getting their beers into convenience stores
City

The Questionnaire: Three indie brewers on getting their beers into convenience stores