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Life We trip reinvigorates Canada’s top athlete Penny Oleksiak

Penny Oleksiak, centre, plays net ball with students following a tour of We Villages Kisaruni all-girls secondary school while on recent trip to the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

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Ever since she exploded into Canada's consciousness with four medals for swimming, including a gold, at last summer's Rio Olympics, Penny Oleksiak has been in a position of opportunity rarely afforded to high-school students.

From throwing the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game, to being offered free tickets to a sold-out Drake concert, the then-16-year-old swimmer embraced her new-found fame.

But she also kept her feet firmly on the ground, keeping up with her studies in the classroom, which is where she was last December when she found out she had been named the winner of the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's top athlete.

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Through it all, though, she had a hunger to learn more about the world. So when a two-week break opened up in her schedule following the swimming world championships in Budapest in late July, she jumped at the chance to do something different.

"I know how lucky I am and I really wanted to do an immersive, experiential trip to learn about others and to give something back," Ms. Oleksiak, now 17, said in an e-mail.

The Toronto native and her family ventured forth on a trip to Kenya to work with We Villages, the international development model designed to transform communities. Together they also toured some of the We Schools in the country, as well as a health clinic in Baraka and an organic farm in Oleleshwa.

During her travels, Ms. Oleksiak experienced both culture and drudgery: She learned the traditional artisan craft of beading and carried 20-litre jugs of water over large distances, the kind of domestic chore that Kenyans do multiple times a day.

On her last day, at a welcome ceremony at Laila Elementary School, she was even presented with a goat – a traditional Kenyan offering.

The highlight was a visit to the Kisaruni all-girls secondary school. Many of the girls there are roughly the same age as Ms. Oleksiak – she played netball, sang songs and exchanged dance moves with them.

According to Ms. Oleksiak, before the advent of We Schools in Kisaruni, the local girls had no access to education and would have been married at 13. Enrolled in school, though, their overall attitude has changed, leaving quite a mark on the Canadian youngster.

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"I was so inspired about how engaged they are in their education and how positive and supportive they are about their future, each other and their community," Ms. Oleksiak says.

Their attitude was summed up in a motto that was displayed prominently on the walls of the school: "The only limits in our life are those we impose on ourselves."

"I loved that," Ms. Oleksiak says.

The Olympian also found time to visit some of the animal sanctuaries, where elephants, rhinos and giraffes reside. One giraffe in particular got up close and personal with Ms. Oleksiak, and the Canadian was only too happy to share the intimate kiss with the world-at-large on social media.

"They have antiseptic tongues, so it is pretty cool," she adds. "I was going to try with an elephant but they are pretty clumsy."

Not that it was all fun and games. While there wasn't a whole lot of swimming going on, Ms. Oleksiak burned calories in a very unusual fashion, helping her family and others build a dormitory at the new We College in Narok County, which opened back in June.

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With the size of the rocks that she had to move, she says her trainer would be proud, although given the quality of the food she consumed at the Bogani camp and her affinity for the chai tea on offer there, she may even have "put on a couple of pounds."

Staying with both the Maasai and Kipsigis communities throughout her stay, Ms. Oleksiak says she was touched by their sense of humour, as well as their strength and compassion. That extended to her father, Richard Oleksiak, who, she said, was reduced to tears at times.

"I don't think I have ever seen my dad cry," she says. "He cried twice on this trip."

Now back at home in Canada and in classes at Monarch Park Collegiate, as well as starting a new swimming season, Ms. Oleksiak says the trip has reinvigorated her with a new-found sense of hope and positivity. She adds that it has made her aware of her good fortune to live in a country with regular access to food, water, health care, education and opportunity.

It has also added to her desire to do more to provide the same for others, both at home and abroad. For anyone sitting on the fence about undertaking such a trip, she says they would be foolish not to jump at the chance.

On the wall of one Kenyan elementary school was another saying: "It is the little things you do that can make a big difference." Ms. Oleksiak says she's going to try to remember that.

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