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Teen star McIntosh leads strong Canadian swim team at world championships

Summer McIntosh Summer McIntosh - The Canadian Press

Summer McIntosh no longer enjoys the luxury of gracing the pool deck as a relatively anonymous up-and-comer with modest expectations from the outside world.

Reporters peppered the 16-year-old swim phenom with questions at a Friday news conference in Fukuoka, Japan as the Canadian swim team made its final preparations for the 2023 World Aquatics Championships.

The queries ranged from how the Torontonian manages pressure, to what she thinks of Olympic champion Ariarne Titmus to why her parents named her Summer given that it’s currently a scorching summer in Japan.

"I was named Summer apparently after some sort of TV show," McIntosh said patiently.

"Someone in a TV show was named Summer. I don’t know what TV show it was."

That TV show, according to the news conference moderator, was The O.C., which made its debut on Fox some 20 years ago.

"Yeah, I think it was that," McIntosh replied.

Welcome to life as a rising superstar. The spotlight is hardly surprising given McIntosh served notice of her intentions — and ability — to dominate in the pool this spring by setting two world records and breaking five world junior records at the Canadian trials.

One of 28 Canadian swimmers on deck at these world championships, McIntosh is already the face of a stacked team featuring big names such as Josh Liendo (ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100-metre fly) Maggie Mac Neil (Olympic 100m fly champion) and Kylie Masse (four-time Olympic medallist.)

Penny Oleksiak, Canada’s most decorated Olympian, is not competing at the world championships due to knee and shoulder injuries.

"It's going to be a fantastic opportunity for our athletes to showcase their talents here in a great compact venue here in Fukuoka," said John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and head coach. "We've been very impressed with the welcome we’ve had and the way that we’ve been able to get around and do things.

"And we know that we’ve run a very calm, focused staging camp to give our athletes the best opportunity to be here for a great eight days of competition for when the world championships start."

Competition begins Sunday. The 400-metre freestyle final is scheduled for opening night, pitting McIntosh against Titmus, the reigning Olympic champion, and American Katie Ledecky, another former world record holder in the event.

"I'm really excited,” McIntosh said. "But when it comes to balancing all my events, I just try to take it day by day and, with the (400m) free on the first day, that’s kind of my main focus as of right now."

At the Canadian trials, McIntosh generated international headlines by clocking three minutes, 56.08 seconds in the 400 free at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.

“After breaking the world record, nothing has really changed,” McIntosh said. “It’s obviously an accomplishment, and I’m very proud that I was able to do that.

"But it's just another thing I’m trying to keep and improve on and just try to push forward as much as possible."

Last month, Titmus injected more spice into the 400m freestyle at the world championships by publicly questioning how the youthful McIntosh will perform under such intense pressure on the international stage.

On Friday, McIntosh deftly stickhandled around questions surrounding a burgeoning rivalry with the decorated Australian.

"She's nice,” McIntosh said of Titmus. "I talked to her before. I kind of met her at the Commonwealth Games, and I talked to her before the (400) free in the ready room.

"Not just her, but everyone that I’ve met so far that I looked up to since I was a little kid has been really sweet and nice to me in person."

Canada is looking to improve on its best-ever performance last year with 11 medals at the world championships in Budapest.

"I'm just really excited to race and see what goes down,” McIntosh said. “And I’m just really excited to see what not only me but the rest of my teammates can do this coming week."

McIntosh said she’s not bothered by the intense spotlight, even if it comes with a barrage of questions.

"I don't really like to focus on expectations from anyone else other than myself," she said. "I mean, it’s kind of irrelevant when it comes to that.

"I don't really feel outside pressure. I try not to focus on it. I mean, obviously it’s there, but at the end of the day, all I can do is try my hardest and train as hard as I can to race the best I can."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2023.