Editor’s note: This article is part of our “Origin Stories” series, focusing on the backstories of athletes and topics around the Summer Olympics.
SARASOTA, Fla. — Summer McIntosh even caught Billie Jean King’s attention.
On the evening of the women’s 400-meter freestyle final at the Toyota U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C., McIntosh, the Canadian swimming prodigy, stepped up to the starting block. Beside her was American swimming legend Katie Ledecky.
It was the first meeting between McIntosh and Ledecky since the 2023 World Aquatics Championships, a clash between two generations of swimmers. Ledecky, 26, is regarded as the greatest women’s swimmer of all time. McIntosh, 17, is a budding swimming sensation. Ledecky remains motivated to add to her accomplished career. The American has seven Olympic and 21 world championship gold medals. McIntosh’s career is only beginning.
The buzzer sounded and the swimmers dove into the pool. Ledecky took the early advantage off the blocks. But at the first turn, McIntosh was out in front. She never lost the lead. By the 300m mark, McIntosh was a full body length in front of Ledecky. As McIntosh powered her way through the final 50 meters, she touched the wall, setting a new championship record in the 400m freestyle. McIntosh and Ledecky exchanged a brief congratulations before getting out of the pool. This time, the Canadian had finished victorious.
Five days later, King — the tennis icon and gender equality champion — wrote a congratulatory note on social media to McIntosh.
History was made in the pool this past weekend.
Cheers to Summer McIntosh, who won the 400m freestyle at the U.S. Open with a lightening fast time of 3:59.42.
Her time beat the previous U.S. Open meet record of 3:59.71.
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) December 5, 2023
“History was made in the pool this past weekend,” King said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Cheers to Summer McIntosh.”
McIntosh is already a four-time world champion and has set two world records in 2023. She’s charting a path toward greatness in swimming, just as Ledecky did as a teenager. Now, McIntosh’s expectations continue to soar with the Paris 2024 Olympics seven months away.
It’s 5:45 a.m. in Sarasota, Fla. This is McIntosh’s wake-up call for her Tuesday morning practice. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday are McIntosh’s days when she swims twice. There are different wake-up calls. On Mondays, McIntosh gets up at 4:15 a.m. local time.
“I’m a deep sleeper, so calming alarms will slowly wake me up and not scare me at 4:15,” McIntosh said.
McIntosh has breakfast before going to the Selby Aquatic Center, home of the Sarasota Sharks swim team that, for over 60 years, has developed swimmers for the state, national and international levels. Known as the “shark tank,” this is where McIntosh trains under coach Brent Arckey. On this early morning practice, McIntosh gets in the pool for a warmup before doing a set of freestyle workouts. Practice is from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Then she returns home for a nap before her afternoon training session.
The early wakeups and the intense training create a regimented schedule. As much as McIntosh embraces the preparation, she admits there are days when motivation isn’t up to her standard.
“Motivation isn’t something that you always have every single day,” McIntosh said. “It comes in waves. But I always have that discipline to no matter how I feel when I wake up, I get to the pool and I try my hardest. … I just keep pushing forward, and it’s those moments where you have to stay disciplined because you have to remember your long-term goals and then you have to implement your short-term goals for that day.”
🇨🇦Summer McIntosh dives into the pool.
Full speed freestyle.
— Lukas Weese (@Weesesports) November 7, 2023
This is how McIntosh prepares for Paris, and likely her next major showdown with Ledecky.
For McIntosh, Ledecky isn’t just any competitor. She’s the swimmer whose posters hung on the wall in McIntosh’s childhood room in Etobicoke, Ontario, a Toronto suburb.
McIntosh was five when Ledecky won her first Olympic gold at London 2012. Now, the two are swimming against each other in the biggest races. What drew McIntosh to Ledecky was more than just their shared abilities in long-distance swimming. It’s what McIntosh saw in Ledecky’s personality away from the pool.
“No matter what one achieves in any sport, they are just people too,” McIntosh said. “She’s just a very down-to-earth person. Getting to know her on a more personal level, made me realize everyone is going through the human experience. It made me see another side of someone I’ve always idolized growing up.”
McIntosh also looked up to another American, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time. A few years ago, McIntosh watched the compilation of Phelps’ record eight gold-medal races at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. She even named one of her three cats “Mikey,” after Phelps.
“He trusted the process and took it day by day,” McIntosh said on what she learned from Phelps. “Even when you lack motivation on a day, you can still be disciplined and get the task done.”
McIntosh is a part of a successful sports family. Her mom, Jill, was an Olympic swimmer at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics. Her sister, Brooke, is a pairs ice skater. It’s been a meteoric rise for Summer, who started swimming competitively at 8 years old. At 14, she was the youngest Canadian on the Tokyo 2020 team. In her first world championship appearance, McIntosh won gold in the 200m butterfly and 400m individual medley. At 16, she set two world records at the 2023 Canadian Trials.
What fuels McIntosh? The desire to be the best while possessing admirable character.
“Being a good person is the No. 1 priority, and then their sport,” Jill McIntosh said. “I don’t think it would be a very fun journey if you didn’t feel proud about who you were at the same time as excelling in your sport.”
As McIntosh jumped into the pool on March 28 at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, little did she realize a world record was in play. She was competing in the 400m freestyle final at Canadian Trials. She glided through the pool, and as her lead grew, so did the crowd’s electric energy. She touched the wall with a time of 3:56.08, breaking the world record.
As she got out of the pool, the stoic McIntosh let out her emotion. After her morning swim, she didn’t think she could set a world record. The photos of McIntosh breaking the record and embracing Arckey are displayed in the coach’s office.
“That picture of somebody looking up at the scoreboard going, ‘Oh my God. I just did something I didn’t think was possible, or I didn’t think I could do.’ I think that’s why a lot of us come to the pool every day,” Arckey said.
McIntosh became the youngest to break a world record in an Olympic program event since Ledecky in 2013. Four days later, she also set a world record in the 400m individual medley.
“I don’t think Summer has digested that setting world records or personal bests in every single event is so difficult to do,” Jill said about the trials performance.
«I’m just so grateful for everyone that’s helped me along the way»
Live the moment poolside, when Summer McIntosh broke the 400m freestyle world record
Watch the 2023 Canadian Swimming Trials: pic.twitter.com/PB3FMqtm6M
— CBC Olympics (@CBCOlympics) March 29, 2023
If the Canadian Trials showcased pure elation, the start of the 2023 world championships highlighted raw disappointment. On the opening finals session, McIntosh went up against Ledecky and Australian superstar Ariarne Titmus in a highly anticipated 400m freestyle final. It was the first time since the Tokyo 2020 Olympics the trio competed in the same race.
McIntosh finished fourth, missing the podium. Titmus broke McIntosh’s world record to win gold, while Ledecky placed second. A disappointing result for the Canadian. Arckey gave her space.
“She was not happy,” Arckey recalls.
The two had a long conversation. She still had several races remaining. McIntosh had a day off before she was back in the pool. It allowed her to wash away the bad race and refocus on what lay ahead. Despite the disappointment, several swimmers reached out to McIntosh, offering words of encouragement. She was surprised at the outpouring of support from the swimming community.
“‘Everyone is being so nice to me,’” Jill remembers Summer telling her. “It’s all about respect. You have to have respect for your competitors.”
McIntosh went on to win two world championship gold medals, in the 200m butterfly and 400m IM. She won bronze in the 200m freestyle and the 4x100m medley relay. Finishing fourth in the 400 free was in the rearview.
“You learn so much from having bad races,” McIntosh said. “When I have a negative experience in a race, I try to turn it into a positive experience as much as possible. What I can get out of that is learning where I went wrong leading up to the race and in the race, learning to refine my focus and the discipline to execute my following races as much as possible.”
McIntosh gets a ride from one of her teammates back to the “shark tank.” In the car, Drake songs blast through the speakers. Before she gets back in the pool, McIntosh completes 45 minutes of dry-land training. This involves lifting weights, burpees and burnout squats. All to improve her strength and conditioning in the water.
After, McIntosh jumps in the water for a two-hour pool session. In between sets of freestyle, breaststroke and butterfly, McIntosh can be heard letting out a laugh with her teammates.
🇨🇦Summer McIntosh’s butterfly.
— Lukas Weese (@Weesesports) November 7, 2023
It’s about to be a life-changing seven months for McIntosh, culminating in the Olympics. She has a chance to become the next superstar in long-distance swimming. If she wins multiple Olympic gold medals, she will enter a new tier of Canadian athletic celebrity. Similar to fellow swimmer Penny Oleksiak (Canada’s most decorated Olympian) or sprinter Andre de Grasse. Which means more attention.
With training complete, McIntosh gets out of the water at the shark tank. She says hello to a young swimmer about to get in the pool for practice. The sun sets over the facility as McIntosh exits. With the Olympics on the horizon, the Canadian’s spotlight continues to grow.
(Top photo of Summer McIntosh showing off her gold medal from the 400-meter individual medley at the 2023 world championships: Nikola Krstic / BSR Agency / Getty Images)