After her coming out at Rio 2016, Penny Oleksiak did a slow fade. People stopped delighting in her high-school hijinks. After a while, she wasn’t in so many ads. She didn’t win too many things. Or any things.
Four years is a long time to rev up for a new cycle. Five is a little mad. But on Sunday, Oleksiak managed it.
Years since we last took any real notice, she has already grabbed the Tokyo Games by the neck.
On Sunday, Oleksiak anchored the 4x100 freestyle relay team. Canada was fancied for bronze. When it was Oleksiak’s turn to go, Canada was in fourth place.
When she turned, third. And by the time she touched the wall, second.
“I just knew I wasn’t going to touch third,” Oleksiak said afterward. “When I make a decision through a race, I have to execute it.”
Oleksiak, still a preposterously young 21, was already one of the great Canadian Olympians. Winning her fifth Summer Games medal – tied with two others for most in history – makes her one of Canada’s greatest closers, Olympic or otherwise.
She’s now only one medal behind the two greatest Canadian Olympians by aggregate performance – Cindy Klassen and Clara Hughes, with six medals each.
Legendary athletes across all disciplines have one thing in common – they are performers. From Muhammad Ali to Simone Biles, they have a sense of occasion. That doesn’t mean they always win, but that they always do something remarkable when the most eyes are on them.
Before Rio, when no one was watching, Oleksiak hadn’t done much of note. No Olympic previews mentioned her. No one on Team Canada hyped her chances.
Then she won four medals.
Between Rio and Tokyo, the same thing, though not quite as anonymous. Oleksiak was intermittently injured. She won some medals at important competitions, but was nowhere close to as impactful as she had been for a week in Brazil. In fairness, she was a little busy growing up.
Now the lights are back on and Canada’s aquatic killer has returned.
In a wonderful twist, she went mano a mano on Sunday with America’s Simone Manuel. The two anchored their respective teams.
Gold was out of question by then. The mighty Australians were in the midst of setting another world record.
As the Canadian and American went in the pool, it was a race for second best.
Oleksiak and Manuel famously tied for gold in the 100 metres in Rio. So this was a reprise under different circumstances of that race.
Like Oleksiak, Manuel has had her own troubles in the pool. There was a sense of vindication for the American as well. But this time, Oleksiak was the quicker of the two.
Back in 2016, it was pretty clear that as she shared a press conference podium with Oleksiak, Manuel wasn’t quite sure who she was. She knows now.
It’s a team sport, so it’s a team win. That’s a lot of emotions to go around.
You feel for Kayla Sanchez and Rebecca Smith, getting their first taste of Olympic glory. You feel for Taylor Ruck, who was dropped from the foursome after Saturday’s qualifiers. You also feel for her replacement, Maggie Mac Neil.
Mac Neil swam her specialty, the 100-m butterfly, before the relay final. She’ll swim the butterfly final Monday, with a gold medal in sight. It’s a lot of high-performance swimming under a lot of pressure in a short period of time.
Ask Oleksiak about that.
She has two more events here in Tokyo – the 100-m and 200-m individual freestyle. Coming into this thing, she wasn’t particularly fancied in either of them.
But this is the type of athlete you don’t bet against. If Oleksiak was a team-sport pro, she’d be the sort of player teams would give anything to acquire. Not because she has the physical ability (though she does), but because she is a winner.
Like talent, winning can’t be taught. It’s something inherent. It is the unquantifiable quality that keeps sports interesting in the age of analytics. Some humans are like the best Triple Crown winners. They can’t be at their best until it matters, and until they see the whites of everyone else’s eyes.
It’s early going here. Canada has got its first medal out of the way. Oleksiak is the main reason for it. Aside from the heat, this feels a lot like Rio.
One wonders if Oleksiak has already decided to repeat that experience. Because if she has, she has to execute it.
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