Summer McIntosh is already a star and her best moments may still be waiting

At just 14 years old, there's no saying just how bright Summer McIntosh's star can shine. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
At just 14 years old, there's no saying just how bright Summer McIntosh's star can shine. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

At just 14 years old, Summer McIntosh hasn’t reached the age where conversations start to lean on retellings from the good old days — but she may just be living in them.

Over a 48-hour stretch this past weekend, McIntosh, the youngest Olympian competing for Canada at the Tokyo Games, set a new Canadian record in the women's 400-metre freestyle and then went ahead and broke that record a day later.

Her time itself, 4:02.42, exists where the best Olympic feats often do, at an intersection of wonder and joy. That she, at 14, travelled time zones away from home without her family and finished fourth at the Games while swimming head-to-head against Katie Ledecky, who holds the event’s world record time of 3:56.46, strains belief.

"I'm still processing everything. It doesn't feel real yet," she told CBC's Devin Heroux in the days leading up to the Olympics. "But it's been great to see my hard work come to life and see that hard work always pays off."

Maybe it’s started to sink in now. Maybe the whirlwind of the Games doesn’t allow for moments to sink in until sometime after they’ve ended. Hopefully, at least she’ll be able to commit how blue the water was and the quiet beneath its surface to memory — fully immerse herself in all the little, spectacular occurrences — before the moment leaves altogether.

Because it will leave. All moments do, and then a next one begins. What that’ll look like for McIntosh, whose moment could arrive as early as Wednesday night as part of the 4x200m relay team, is a challenge of imagination. Sometimes, when everything looks possible, anything really could happen.

The timeline for her aquatic ascent to reach this point has been dizzying.

In 2014, at the age of eight, she started swimming competitively. She’s had her sights set on the Olympics since, at least, the 2016 Olympic Trials, where she had a front-row seat to watching the Rio team be named. In the intervening years, she’s broken over 50 age group national swimming records, including what was likely the fastest time in the world for a 14-year-old in the 400-metre freestyle, and qualified for Tokyo by beating out fellow Canadian swimming sensation Penny Oleksiak in the 200-metre trials.

"I love Summer. I hate training with Summer," Oleksiak said at the time. "She does not die. She's 14 so she doesn't get a lot of lactic acid so every time I train with her, I know she has the gas on and it's all gas, no brakes with her.”

Oleksiak is as close to a precedent for McIntosh as there is in swimming, a teenager bursting onto the national scene and breaking records before being eligible for a full driver’s license or attending prom or any other number of traditional rights of passage.

During the 2016 Rio Games, Oleksiak became the youngest Canadian to win Olympic gold, standing atop the podium at 16 years of age, which also made her the first athlete born post-2000 to claim an individual Olympic gold. She didn’t stop there, of course. Now 21, Oleksiak has won six medals during the Summer Games, the most ever by a Canadian, and has a chance to stand alone atop history by eclipsing the overall mark before the Tokyo Games end.

It’s possible to imagine being that young and that successful, suddenly forced to navigate an already disorienting stretch of life with the weight of a country’s hopes and expectations on your shoulders. It can be understood intellectually. But it can’t really be known, not unless you’ve lived it, too. Oleksiak’s insights then matter more than most.

“I was saying this morning it's funny how my biggest competition is the smallest person in the pool right now,” Oleksiak said after the 200-metre trials. “It's frustrating because I know going into races, she's going to go, go, go. But always motivating and inspiring. I love her work ethic. She's really strong in and out of the pool mentally.”

For McIntosh, resilience has been essential these past 17 months, starting in April of 2020 with an unexpected goodbye. Her longtime coach, Kevin Thorburn, whose decades-long tenure with the Etobicoke Swim Club saw him guide 18 Canadian champions, died suddenly at the age of 63. No cause of death was given publically by the club.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic sprawled, taking not just the solace of familiar routines, but the chance for McIntosh’s team to grieve the loss of Thorburn together in person. It didn’t stop there, either.

In January, when McIntosh’s father, Greg, was diagnosed with cancer, the family decided the safest course of action was to live in different places to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. Summer, along with her mother, Jill, moved nearer the pool she trained at in Scarborough, Ont., while Greg moved closer to the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Summer’s sister, Brooke, stayed at the family home.

“The last year and a half has been extremely difficult on everyone in different ways, Summer, certainly from our family’s perspective, has had more than her fair share to digest as a 14-year-old,” Jill said during a televised interview with the CBC’s Natasha Fatah just before Summer competed at the Games. “She’s very resilient, and she tried to process things one at a time.”

Greg’s treatment has gone well so far. Vaccines became available. One at a time, the days went by and now McIntosh is in Tokyo with a Canadian record.

At 14, she’s lived through a lot. She knows experiences only a handful of humans ever have, and soon she’ll go back to Toronto, where she’s said before she wants to spend time with her friends and enjoy being a regular teenager — or, at least, whatever regular means when you’re a teenager who’s swam faster than anyone in the country’s recorded history.

After that? It’s a bit too infinite to really grasp. The scope of what looks possible is different when you’re young and life is still in front of you. It’s tempting, from afar, to see only good in those possibilities. A gold medal at the 2024 Paris Games, maybe. World championship contention for sure, at least. Or adding a global record to the list of one’s she’s toppled.

There’s a glimmer of selfishness in ascribing those ideas to her future, too. It’s easy to choose to only see the best possible outcomes for someone young the same way it’s easy to choose to believe in veterans outduelling Father Time: if they’re just getting started, if they’re not done yet, maybe the same can be true for me, too.

Sometimes, though, when everything looks possible, anything really could happen.

Maybe it’s injuries, or maybe it’s potential being unpredictable and rarely exponential, or maybe it’s something less nefarious altogether like another passion taking over her singular focus. After the last 16 months of a global pandemic, as half the world battles once-in-a-century fires every weekend and the other confronts weekly once-in-a-century floods, imagining ways for things to go wrong shouldn’t strain the imagination.

None of which is to say McIntosh’s story will.

This could just be the beginning, the rest could all still be in front of her — years worth of good old days to reminisce on when the time comes.

But what comes next doesn’t make what McIntosh did during these Games shine any brighter, nor can it tarnish the achievements.

Process things one at a time, when they’re hard, and just as much when they’re good. For now, right now is all there is — and the right now McIntosh has given Canada is remarkable.

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