Penny Oleksiak has delivered in the pool at the Olympics – now it's time for corporate Canada to step up with more than just lip service, her coach says.
A day after the 16-year-old swimmer from Toronto claimed a record fourth medal at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games in stunning fashion, her coach Ben Titley had some blunt words to say about the state of athletic sponsorship in Canada.
If Canadians enjoy seeing Oleksiak winning so many medals, sports like swimming need more support, he said. Titley, a former British Olympic coach, came to Canada in 2013 to lead the Canadian national team and has helped revitalize the program.
"I really hope that people in Canada and the businesses in Canada really step up and help our best athletes be successful at the next Olympics," Titley told The Globe and Mail.
"Because for me it's a normal thing in the U.K. that this happens. But it seems like in Canada, it's ice hockey and baseball and basketball, and for everybody else it's: 'Oh, well, who cares?' Well, you should care. We've got a girl here who is something special. We've got a team here that could be something special. And I'm sure they've made all of Canada proud – but we need people to invest in these athletes."
Titley's pointed comments came a day after Oleksiak won Canada's first gold medal at these Olympics. She finished the 100-metre freestyle Thursday night in an Olympic-record time in a tie for first place with American Simone Manuel.
It was Oleksiak's fourth medal in Rio, giving her the most podium finishes of any Canadian athlete at a single Summer Olympics.
Oleksiak also won bronze as the anchor of the women's 4x100 freestyle relay on Saturday before winning silver in the 100-metre butterfly on Sunday. She later anchored the 4x200 freestyle relay team to a bronze on Wednesday night.
With her stunning breakout performance in Rio – after entering the Games as a relative unknown – Swimming Canada now plans to spend the next four years honing Oleksiak's raw ability, along with that of several other bright lights in its young stable of swimmers, in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Titley said Canadian officials are already preparing Oleksiak for her return home after the Games, where she will find life much different that when she left.
"When she gets back, she's not going to be living in the same Toronto that she grew up in four weeks ago. So dealing with those things for a 16-year-old would be the first thing [to plan for]," he said. "My advice would be [over] the next two, three weeks, go home, relax, be a kid, go out with your friends, go to parties, go to the cottage, whatever. Experience all of those things and just be a kid. And then we'll start back mid-September with a goal and a focus."
But that goal – Tokyo 2020 – requires more financial support than the swimmers are currently getting, he said. What's required is "people coming out of the woodwork" with sponsorships.
Canada has five medals in swimming so far in Rio: Oleksiak's four and the bronze won by Windsor's Kylie Masse in the 100-metre backstroke. It's a performance Titley believes doesn't have to end after Rio. He believes the Canadian women swimmers set a positive example for Canadian kids, something sponsors should pick up on.
"We need people to say, 'Look these are great role models,'" he said. "We now have a bunch of role models who I think can give hope to a lot of young Canadians that those things are possible for the next generation – not just [being] stuck on a phone trying to catch Pokémons."
The revitalization of the Canadian women's swimming program has been nothing short of remarkable. Until Rio, it had been 20 years since a Canadian woman had won any hardware in the pool.
Titley said there are many people and organizations who deserve credit for the resurgence of the program, starting with the athletes, but also the various forms of government funding the program has received. That funding allowed the team to do several crucial things that contributed to the medal haul, including the ability to hold camps where the best swimmers could gather together and train, and to introduce younger swimmers such as Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck, also, 16, to international meets in Europe.
"It's the athletes first, we have great athletes," Titley said. "But with the Canadian Sports Institute of Ontario, with Own The Podium, the funding from the government, all sorts of things have really come to help us out in that respect. It's definitely been a team effort. But getting the best athletes to train with the other best athletes I think has made the biggest difference."