In June, Summer McIntosh stood on the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre pool deck simply moments after defeating four-time Olympic medallist Penny Oleksiak to win the 200-metre freestyle race and qualify for Tokyo 2020.
The 14-year-old was beaming behind her masks as she tried to catch her breath.
“You know, it’s just crazy. I don’t even know what to say. I’m just speechless,” she stated, huffing and puffing. “It’s been such a crazy year for everyone. I’m just really happy.”
It was Father’s Day on the Canadian Olympic swimming trials and her dad, Greg, was introduced up on the massive display screen contained in the venue for a post-race interview. Summer’s eyes lit up when she noticed him. She waved.
“That’s my dad,” she stated, smiling.
Greg, virtually misplaced for phrases for a minute, composed himself.
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“She works so hard. It’s so amazing to see her get rewarded for the hard work she puts in. She deserves this and Summer, I’m so, so happy for you,” he stated.
WATCH | McIntosh edges Oleksiak at Olympic trials:
That was the first time Greg had been out of bed in weeks. 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.”
Jill has been the glue keeping the family together for the past seven months. When Greg was diagnosed with cancer in January, the family decided they had to split up 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 in Scarborough, Ont., near the pool while Greg and Jill’s other daughter Brooke, who is a competitive pairs figure skater and competed at the 2020 Youth Olympics, stayed at the family home in Etobicoke, Ont.
“When Brooke was skating I would go to the house and fill the fridge up. I couldn’t be in contact with her. And then with Greg I’d triple-mask and help him when I could,” Jill said. “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 would know. She competed at the 1984 Olympics in the pool for Canada and knows what it takes to be an elite swimmer.
So she was doing everything in her power to help keep Summer focused and pushing toward her goal of qualifying for Tokyo. But the young swimmer was also facing more adversity months earlier when her longtime coach, Kevin Thorburn, died in April 2020.
Everyone has had their battles during this pandemic. But 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
It was a shocking loss for the swimming community in Canada and for 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. It was a bit scary for her. It was all new. And then her dad. The trials on, trials off. She rolls with the punches pretty well. I am so proud of her.”
Summer is as resilient a 14-year-old as you’ll ever meet. Now she finds herself at her first Olympics, in a pandemic, without her family.
Greg is on the road to recovery. Summer was able to see him before she left for Tokyo. Then she was off to a staging camp in Vancouver for more than a week before taking flight to the Games. Jill also flew to Vancouver for a few days to spend time with her daughter before the biggest moment of her life to this point.
“My mom is just so supportive. She drives me and does everything she can to help me feel ready,” Summer said. “She’s just being a normal mom. Consoling if I have a bad race. She’s just amazing.”
Jill has a deep understanding of what makes athletes great. She knows what worked for her and is trying to create an environment now for her daughter to thrive in — that also includes being intentional about giving her space.
WATCH | McIntosh ready to become youngest Canadian athlete in Tokyo:
“As much as you might want to ask about this and what about that, I also recognize one of the most critical success factors of any athlete is the coach-athlete relationship. If you start to muck with that it’s not good,” Jill stated. “It’s not a great path for a parent to continually interject. I try to be so supportive of that.
“I do really assume I can add probably the most worth to each ladies simply to try to put issues in perspective.”
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. Summer also skated.
The two are remarkably supportive of each other, checking in with one another when they’re at competitions and always wanting the best for each other.
‘Summer just liked to race’
“I feel Summer favored the objectivity of swimming. She favored figuring out her time. Figure skating you are judged. I feel she a lot most popular the non-judged sport. Brooke gravitated to that. Summer simply favored to race and know precisely the place she stood,” Jill said. “I’m form of glad they each picked totally different sports activities. I do not know what would have occurred.
“I think this is a much easier path. It’s fun to have two sports in the family.”
Greg says it is unimaginable to have a front-row seat to the three ladies in his life who’ve achieved and are reaching 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 stated.
Just 5 brief years in the past, Brooke and Summer took a photograph with Penny Oleksiak on the pool deck on the Pan Am Sports Centre, a second that caught with them each and impressed Summer to get to the Olympics.
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 stated.
She describes Summer as her outgoing, foolish little one, but in addition somebody who also can flick a change and get ultra-competitive in a rush.
“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 stated.
Oleksiak stated she’s “all gas, no brakes.”
The pandemic has been difficult for even probably the most veteran athletes, by no means thoughts what Summer needed to endure on a private stage. But the 14-year-old is retaining her massive second in perspective.
“All I can do is my best. I’ll train my hardest and swim my hardest,” she stated.
“I’m still processing everything. It doesn’t feel real yet. But it’s been great to see my hard work come to life and see that hard work always pays off.”