February 29, 2024

Editor’s note: This article is part of us “Origin Stories” seriesfocusing on the background of athletes and topics surrounding the Summer Olympics.

SARASOTA, Fla. – Summer McIntosh even caught Billie Jean King’s attention.

On the night of the women’s 400-meter freestyle final at the Toyota US Open in Greensboro, NC, Canadian swimming prodigy McIntosh stepped to the starting block. Next to her was American swimming legend Katie Ledecky.

This was the first meeting between McIntosh and Ledecky since the 2023 World Aquatics Championships, a clash between two generations of swimmers. Ledecky (26) is considered the greatest female swimmer of all time. McIntosh (17) is a budding swimming sensation. Ledecky remains motivated to contribute to her accomplished career. The American has seven Olympic and 21 world championship gold medals. McIntosh’s career is just beginning.

The buzzer sounded and the swimmers dived into the pool. Ledecky took the early advantage out of the blocks. But at the first turn, McIntosh was ahead. She never lost the lead. By the 300m mark, McIntosh was a full body length ahead of Ledecky. As McIntosh powered her way through the final 50 meters, she hit the wall and set a new championship record in the 400m freestyle. McIntosh and Ledecky exchanged a brief congratulations before exiting the pool. This time the Canadian ended up victorious.

Five days later, King – the tennis icon and gender equality champion – wrote a congratulatory note to McIntosh on social media.

“History was made in the pool this past weekend,” King said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Greetings to Summer McIntosh.”

McIntosh is already a four-time world champion and has set two world records in 2023. She is charting a path to 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 AM in Sarasota, Florida. 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 am. local time on.

“I’m a deep sleeper, so calming alarms will wake me up slowly and not startle me at 4:15,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh eats breakfast before heading to the Selby Aquatic Center, home of the Sarasota Sharks swim team that has developed swimmers for the state, national and international levels for more than 60 years. Known as the “shark tank,” this is where McIntosh trains under trainer Brent Arckey. On this early morning practice, McIntosh gets into the pool for a warm-up before doing a set of freestyle workouts. Practice is from 6:30 am. to 8:30 am Then she returns home for a nap before her afternoon workout.

The early awakening and the intense training create a regulated schedule. As much as McIntosh embraces the preparation, she admits there are days when motivation isn’t up to her standard.

“Motivation is not something you always have every day,” McIntosh said. “It comes in waves. But I always have that discipline, no matter how I feel when I wake up, I get to the pool and I try my best. … 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 implement your short-term goals for that day.”

This is how McIntosh prepares for Paris, and likely her next big showdown with Ledecky.

For McIntosh, Ledecky is not just any competitor. She is the swimmer whose posters hung on the wall in McIntosh’s childhood room in Etobicoke, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.

McIntosh was five when Ledecky won her first Olympic gold in London in 2012. Now the two swim against each other in the biggest races. What drew McIntosh to Ledecky was more than just their shared abilities in long-distance swimming. That’s what McIntosh saw in Ledecky’s personality away from the pool.

“No matter what one achieves in any sport, they’re only human too,” McIntosh said. “She is just a very down-to-earth person. Getting to know her on a more personal level made me realize that everyone goes through the human experience. It made me see a different 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 of what she learned from Phelps. “Even when you lack motivation one day, you can still be disciplined and get the job done.”

McIntosh is part of a successful sports family. Her mother, Jill, was an Olympic swimmer at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics. Her sister, Brooke, is an ice skater. It’s been a meteoric rise for Summer, who began swimming competitively at age 8. At 14, she was the youngest Canadian on the Tokyo 2020 team. In her first appearance at the world championships, McIntosh won gold in the 200m butterfly and 400m individual medley. At 16, she set two world records at the 2023 Canadian trials.

What’s burning 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 of who you were, while excelling in your sport.”


As McIntosh jumped into the pool at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Center on March 28, little did she realize that a world record was in the works. She competed 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.

When she got out of the pool, the stoic McIntosh released her emotion. After her morning swim, she didn’t think she could set a world record. The photos of McIntosh breaking the record and hugging Arckey are displayed in the coach’s office.

“That picture of someone looking up at the scoreboard and saying, ‘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,” said Arcey.

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 it’s that hard to set world records or personal bests in every event,” Jill said of the trials’ performance.

If the Canadian trials showed pure excitement, the start of the 2023 world championships highlighted raw disappointment. In the opening final session, McIntosh faced off against Ledecky and Australian superstar Ariarne Titmus in a highly anticipated 400m freestyle final. It was the first time since the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that the trio competed in the same race.

McIntosh finished fourth and missed 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 wasn’t happy,” Arckey recalls.

The two had a long conversation. She still had several races left. McIntosh had a day off before she was back in the pool. This allowed her to wash away the bad race and refocus on what lay ahead. Despite the disappointment, several swimmers reached out to McIntosh and offered words of encouragement. She was surprised by the outpouring of support from the swimming community.

“‘Everybody’s so nice to me,'” Jill remembers Summer telling her. “It’s all about respect. You have to respect 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 back of my mind.

“You learn so much from bad racing,” 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 from it is to learn where I went wrong before the race and in the race, to refine my focus and the discipline to perform as much as possible in my next races.”


McIntosh gets a ride back to the “shark tank” from one of her teammates. In the car, Drake songs blast through the speakers. Before she gets back into 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.

Afterwards, McIntosh jumps into the water for a two-hour pool session. Between sets of freestyle, breaststroke and butterfly, McIntosh can be heard laughing with her teammates.

It’s about to be a life-changing seven months for McIntosh, culminating in the Olympic Games. 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 level 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 who is about to get into the pool for practice. The sun is setting over the facility as McIntosh walks out. With the Olympics upon us, the Canadian’s spotlight continues to grow.

(Top photo of Summer McIntosh showing off her 400-meter individual medley gold medal at the 2023 world championships: Nikola Krstic/BSR Agency/Getty Images)


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