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Canada’s youngest Olympian now teammates with those who inspired her

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By Jim Morris

Stored in her phone Summer McIntosh has a picture of herself with Penny Oleksiak taken at the 2016 Canadian Olympic and Para-swimming Trials.

McIntosh was nine years old at the time. She remembers watching the 16-year-old Oleksiak win four medals at the Rio Olympic Games, including gold in the 100-metre freestyle.

“I loved watching the races,” said McIntosh. “She really did inspire me, and she still does inspire me.

“I would have never, ever imagined that I would be making the team five years later.”

McIntosh earned the chance to be Oleksiak’s teammate at the Tokyo Games on the second day of last month’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swimming Trials, Presented by Bell.

Not only did the 14-year-old win the 200-m freestyle in a national 13-14 age group record 1:56.19, more than a second under the Olympic A qualifying time. She also touched the wall ahead of Oleksiak.

“It didn’t feel real at all,” McIntosh said about realizing her Olympic dream. “It felt like a blur.

“It’s been a crazy year for everyone. I’m just really happy.”

McIntosh’s win may have surprised some, but not Oleksiak. The two train together at the High Performance Centre – Ontario.

“It’s funny how my biggest competition is the smallest person in the pool right now,” the six-foot-one Oleksiak said about the five-foot-seven McIntosh.

“I love Summer. I hate training with Summer. She does not die. It’s all gas, no brakes with her.”

McIntosh added to her Tokyo program by winning the 800-m freestyle in 8:29.48, shaving six seconds off her previous national 13-14 age group record. Prior to the trials, she trimmed 10-seconds off her age group record in the 400-m freestyle, posting a time of 4:05.13. That was almost three seconds under the Olympic qualifying standard and believed to be the fastest 14-year-old time ever recorded.

Reaching the Olympics has been an evolution for McIntosh. A former figure skater and gymnast, she realized swimming was her best ticket to the Games.

“It wasn’t really like there was one minute when I was ‘OK, this can happen,’” she said. “It kind of just happened over time as I kept improving and focusing on it more.”

The Toronto native began training at the Lakeshore Swim Club when she was seven. Later she joined the Etobicoke Swim Club and worked with Kevin Thorburn where she began setting age group records.

In April 2020, just as Canada began to shut down due to COVID-19, Thorburn died unexpectedly at age 63.

“It was a very hard time,” said McIntosh. “When it happened none of my teammates were able to see each other, we couldn’t console each other.

“I miss him every day, but I feel like I do honour him every day with swimming.”

When McIntosh began training at HPC-Ontario under Head Coach Ben Titley, she found herself in the water with Olympic and world championship medallists including Oleksiak, Kylie Masse and Sydney Pickrem.

Instead of feeling intimidated, McIntosh was treated like an equal.

“Since the first day I went there, everyone, all the swimmers, the coaches, the staff, were so welcoming,” she said. “That meant a lot to me. I was a bit younger and didn’t know anyone.

“A lot of people there, I’ve been looking up to them for so long. It’s crazy to now have the opportunity to train with them.”

Titley has been impressed with McIntosh’s commitment.

“She’s extremely conscientious and focused for a 14-year-old, and she just loves swimming,” he said.

“Some people (swim) because they don’t have anything else to do. Some people do it because they make money. This kid likes it because she loves swimming.”

Pickrem, who has won four world championship medals, said McIntosh’s potential is off the charts.

“She’s unreal,” said Pickrem. “I will put money on it that she’s going to be the future of Swimming Canada.

“I can’t believe I’m a decade older than her, but she does surprise me every single day and hold herself together.”

Oleksiak understands better than most the pressure a teenage swimmer can feel.

“I love her work ethic,” she said. “She is really strong in and out of the pool mentally.”

At 37 years old Brent Hayden is the oldest Canadian swimmer to qualify for the Olympics. McIntosh was just five years old when Hayden won 100-m freestyle bronze at the London 2012 Olympics.

“When I was 14 years old I was still in summer club and I wasn’t even winning in summer club,” he said. “She’s one of those greats in the making right now.

“She’s got a long, successful career ahead of her.”

Swimming runs in McIntosh’s family. Her mother Jill (Horstead) competed at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics as a 17-year-old.

“She doesn’t act like my second coach or anything like that,” said McIntosh. “If I have a bad race or a tough day at the pool she’s always there to comfort me and make me feel better.”

McIntosh has already been compared to American Katie Ledecky but the swimmer she most admires is Michael Phelps. She has even named one of her cats Mikey.

“He’s always been such a versatile swimmer, good at such a wide range of events,” McIntosh said. “I’ve always aspired to be like him.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee says McIntosh will be the youngest Canadian athlete in Tokyo.  The youngest Canadian Olympian, summer or winter, was Barbara Hounsell who was 13 years 101 days old when she competed in the 400-m individual medley at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

McIntosh knows she will draw attention in Tokyo but doubts it will bother her.

“I just try to focus on myself,” she said. “I don’t get too nervous.

“I used to competitively figure skate. That was a lot more nerve wracking because you’re the only one on the ice and if you fall, everyone is watching.”

Tokyo will be a learning experience for McIntosh, setting the stage for Paris in 2024 and beyond.

“All I can do is my best,” she said. “I will train my hardest and see what I can do.

“I’m not really focused too much on a certain thing or certain time. I just want to make sure my times reflect what I have been doing in training.”