Road To The Olympic Games

Swimming·THE OLYMPIANS

Coach's death, dad's cancer battle part of Canadian teen Summer McIntosh's path to Olympics

Amid the challenges Olympic athletes have had to endure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada's youngest swimmer, 14-year-old Summer McIntosh, has been coping with the death of her coach as well as the cancer diagnosis of her father, who is now recovering.

Swimmer's father diagnosed with cancer less than a year after her coach died. He is now recovering.

Summer McIntosh, 14, Canada's youngest swimmer at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Summer McIntosh, has had to deal with the death of her coach and her father's cancer diagnosis in her preparation for the Games. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In June, Summer McIntosh stood on the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre pool deck after defeating four-time Olympic medallist Penny Oleksiak to win the 200-metre freestyle race and qualify for Tokyo 2020. 

The 14-year-old from Etobicoke, Ont., was beaming behind her mask as she tried to catch her breath at the Canadian Olympic swimming trials. 

"You know, it's just crazy. I don't even know what to say. I'm just speechless," she said, huffing and puffing. "It's been such a crazy year for everyone. I'm just really happy."

The teen is now in Tokyo, as Canada's youngest swimmer at the 2020 Olympic Games. Amid the challenges all of the athletes there have endured while trying to train throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Summer McIntosh has also been coping with the death of her coach as well as the cancer diagnosis of her father, who is now recovering.

"I'm still processing everything. It doesn't feel real yet," she said in a recent interview. "But it's been great to see my hard work come to life and see that hard work always pays off." 

Back in June, the Canadian Olympic swimming trials were held on Father's Day and the swimmer's dad, Greg McIntosh, was brought up on the big screen inside the venue for a post-race interview.

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"That's my dad," Summer said, smiling as her eyes lit up. She waved.

Greg, appeared to almost be at a loss for words, before he composed himself. 

"She works so hard. It's so amazing to see her get rewarded for the hard work she puts in," he said. "She deserves this.

"And Summer, I'm so, so happy for you."

WATCH | McIntosh edges Oleksiak at Olympic trials:

14-year-old Summer McIntosh beats Penny Oleksiak, qualifies for Olympic team nomination

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1 month ago
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14-year-old Summer McIntosh broke her own Canadian age group record for 13-14 year-olds with a time of 1:56.19 in the women's 200-metre freestyle event at the Canadian Olympic Swimming Trials. 11:30

That was the first time in weeks Greg McIntosh had been out of bed. He's been battling cancer since January. 

"He should have won an Academy Award for that because he literally hadn't left the bed," said Jill McIntosh, Greg's wife and Summer's mother. "That was his first time getting in the shower and having a shirt on."

When Greg was diagnosed with cancer in January, the family made the difficult decision to to split up geographically to minimize the COVID-19 risk. Greg moved into a place near the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in downtown Toronto, Jill and Summer rented a condo near the pool in Scarborough, Ont., and Greg and Jill's other daughter Brooke —  a competitive pairs figure skater who competed at the 2020 Youth Olympics — stayed at the family home in nearby Etobicoke. 

"When Brooke was skating I would go to the house and fill the fridge up. I couldn't be in contact with her," Jill said. "And then with Greg I'd triple-mask and help him when I could.

"You just kind of go into mama bear mode. You just have to get through. I had to take one day at a time, like a swimmer. And not be too scared about the future."

Jill McIntosh, Summer's mother, represented Canada at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. (Jill McIntosh)

Jill competed at the 1984 Olympics in the pool for Canada. 

She was doing everything in her power to help keep Summer focused and pushing toward her goal of qualifying for Tokyo.

Meanwhile, Summer was still mourning the loss of her longtime coach, Kevin Thorburn, who died in April 2020.  

... she lost her coach through all of this suddenly. And then her dad. The trials on, trials off. She rolls with the punches pretty well.- Jill McIntosh on daughter Summer

 

"Everyone has had their battles during this pandemic. But she lost her coach through all of this, suddenly. It was devastating for her and everyone," Jill said. "And then completely turning her training upside down and moving to the centre. And then her dad. The trials on, trials off.

"She rolls with the punches pretty well. I am so proud of her."

Now, the 14-year-old is at her first Olympics, during a pandemic, without her family. 

Summer was able to see her dad, who the family says is finished treatment, before she headed off to a staging camp in Vancouver for more than a week in July. Jill also flew to Vancouver for a few days to spend time with her daughter before Summer left for the Games.

Summer McIntosh, left, and her mother Jill. (Submitted by Jill McIntosh)

"My mom is just so supportive. She drives me and does everything she can to help me feel ready," Summer said. "She's  ... consoling if I have a bad race. She's just amazing."

Jill says she knows what worked for her as an athlete and is trying to create an environment for her daughter to thrive in. That means giving her space, she says. 

WATCH | McIntosh ready to become youngest Canadian athlete in Tokyo:

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1 month ago
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Summer McIntosh, 14, reacts to being named to Canada’s Olympic swim team. She’ll be the youngest member of the team competing at the Tokyo Games. 1:16

"One of the most critical success factors of any athlete is the coach-athlete relationship," Jill said. "If you start to muck with that it's not good. It's not a great path for a parent to continually interject.

"I try to be so supportive of that."

Summer and her sister are best friends. They started swimming together at a very young age. Jill says Brooke was actually probably the better swimmer in the beginning.

The two are supportive of each other, checking in with one another when they're at competitions and always wanting the best for each other.

Summer receives her medal after winning the women’s 800-metre freestyle at the Canadian Olympic swimming trials in June. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

'Summer just liked to race'

Summer also skated when she was younger, but while Brooke gravitated toward skating, Summer preferred "the objectivity" of swimming, Jill said.

"She liked knowing her time. Summer just liked to race and know exactly where she stood," Jill said. "I'm kind of glad they both picked different sports. I don't know what would have happened.

"It's fun to have two sports in the family."

Greg says it's "incredible" to have a front-row seat to the three women in his life achieving athletic success. 

"It's incredible. I'm just so proud of both my kids. And Jill is the one who keeps everything together. It's an absolute thrill to watch this all," he said.

Five years ago, Brooke and Summer took a photo with Penny Oleksiak on the pool deck at the Pan Am Sports Centre, a moment that stuck with them both and inspired Summer to get to the Olympics. 

Summer, left, with sister Brooke and Penny Oleksiak at the 2016 swim trials. (Submitted by McIntosh family)

Now she's going to the Games with the 2016 Olympic champion. 

"I would have never imagined that. I wouldn't even have imagined she would have picked swimming, let alone go to the Olympics," Jill said. 

She described Summer as her outgoing, silly child, but also someone who can also flick a switch and get ultra-competitive in a hurry. 

"In an instant she can be completely focused on the task at hand. She is very good at being the silly, free-spirited little girl and then extremely focused in a moment," Jill said. 

After the swim trials in June, Oleksiak said Summer was "all gas, no brakes."

As for Summer, for her it's simple. 

"All I can do is my best," she said. "I'll train my hardest and swim my hardest." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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