Penny Oleksiak was always going to face enormous expectations at the Tokyo Olympics.
It’s been five years since she rollicked to four medals in Rio, setting a Canadian record at a single Summer Games, smashing the 100-metre freestyle Olympic record and becoming Canada’s youngest gold medalist, at the age of 16. In her first Olympics – her first major international competition, actually – the youngster tied the great Victor Davis as Canada’s most successful Olympic swimmer in history.
Virtually overnight, she became a star. Canadians were captivated by Penny (as she quickly became known to even the most casual fans) as she cut torpedo-like through the water past older, more experienced swimmers and pulled off exhilarating late-race comebacks. She was one of the country’s most enduring images from Rio – the unassuming kid with still-wet hair, Team Canada jacket, a sprightly smile and another new medal around her neck. She was central to the swim team’s six-medal haul (its third-best at an Olympics) and was chosen to carry Canada’s flag at the closing ceremonies.
Back home, accolades and attention flowed as if from a firehose: a parade in her hometown of Toronto, awards, sponsorship deals, autograph seekers and public appearances. The Prime Minister tweeted at her. Drake shouted her out on Instagram. And all this before she’d even started driving lessons.
All that acclaim took its toll on Oleksiak.
“I think after Rio, I had a really big high, and it was super-fun to swim, go to meets, and be kind of known in the swimming community,” Oleksiak said at last month’s Canadian Olympic swimming trials in Toronto. “After that, there was a lot of pressure behind my name. It wasn’t really enjoyable for me, and no time was ever really good enough for me.”
Now, at 21, she’s heading into her second Olympics bearing the burden of huge, unexpected success her first time around, on top of all the chaos the pandemic has wrought. The Games have already been postponed by a year, and Canada’s strict COVID-19 restrictions have wreaked havoc with training and prevented swimmers from competing while many rival countries kept motoring. No fans will be allowed in Tokyo, which means Oleksiak won’t have her family cheering her on from the stands.
Most of all, though, the question on everyone’s mind is: How can Oleksiak top the show she put on in Rio?
Though she’s a marquee Olympian Canadians can’t wait to watch, many pundits and prognosticators have overlooked Oleksiak in their lists of predicted medalists. Much of the attention for this Olympic swim meet focuses on female stars from Australia and the United States.
That sounds like enough pressure to crush a young athlete. Not Oleksiak. Despite it all, she says she feels good – especially after a confidence-boosting race at trials, where she swam her best time in the 100-metre freestyle since Rio (52.89 seconds, not far off the Olympic record of 52.70 she and American Simone Manuel both swam to tie for gold in 2016). It was the fourth-best in the world in the 2020-21 season.
After the race, Oleksiak posted a black-and-white photo of herself on Instagram, race-ready in cap and goggles, with a simple, daring caption: “Count me out again.”
“The last few years, I haven’t really been in any of the stories that include people to watch in Tokyo – like, saying that I might not make finals or I’m not a medal contender,” Oleksiak said by phone from Vancouver, where the swim team held its pre-Olympic camp before heading to Tokyo. “I think people who know me know I usually rise to the occasion. So it was just nice to swim that time and make that post and just be like, I am someone to watch – don’t count me out.”
Oleksiak was only 15 when she made the senior national team. The older swimmers fondly nicknamed her “Child” and looked out for her – especially 23-year-old Sandrine Mainville, whom everyone called “Mom” because she’d let Oleksiak hang out at her apartment, feed her snacks, often drive her to the pool and help her with homework. The pair roomed together in Florida at the 2016 Canadian Olympic trials, and when the youngster was nervous about making the team, Mainville gave her a pep talk. When she was 20, Mainville told Oleksiak, she’d missed out on making Canada’s 2012 Olympic team. Getting a pass to Rio could be her last shot – that was pressure. But a 16-year-old with lots of swimming years ahead of her?
“You don’t have anything to lose,” Mainville recalls telling Oleksiak. “You should have no pressure whatsoever.”
Oleksiak did swim like a kid with nothing to lose – at trials, then in Rio, too. She swam the anchor leg in the final for the women’s 4x100-metre freestyle-relay team (which also included Mainville), helping Canada earn bronze, its first Olympic medal in that event in 40 years. The next night, she swam to silver in the 100-metre butterfly. Three days later, she got another bronze with the 4×200m freestyle-relay team.
Michelle Williams (now Michelle Toro) – another relay teammate who helped look out for Oleksiak – was her roommate in Rio, where buzz was building around Canada’s female swimmers. She remembers Oleksiak casually asking one day if any Canadian athletes had won gold yet.
“I said no, and then I just pointed right at her, as if to say, How about you do it?” Toro recalls. “Then of course she went out and won Canada’s first gold there in the 100-metre free. I remember how level and nonchalant she was the whole meet. A lot of athletes let a really good or bad performance get to them emotionally, but she didn’t at all. It was remarkable.”
Once they left the Rio bubble, however, the attention on Oleksiak escalated. There was that parade in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood, where Oleksiak grew up. The Lou Marsh Trophy for Canada’s top athlete of 2016. A news conference at her high school, Monarch Park Collegiate, on her first day of Grade 11. Suddenly, people recognized her everywhere. There were lots of extra demands on her time. Her family hired an agent and a publicist, and the teenager felt the weight of expectation – both her own and the country’s – at competitions.
In 2017, she took some time away from the high-performance centre in Scarborough (where she works with coach Ben Titley) to train at the Toronto Swim Club with her childhood coach, Bill O’Toole. She also pulled out of the 2018 Pan Pacific swimming championships and took a much-needed month away to just be a teenager.
“There’s been a lot that’s happened behind closed doors that wasn’t so glamorous and a really big learning experience for me over the past five years,” Oleksiak says. “I think I’m one of the first swimmers in Canada that kind of skyrocketed to – I don’t want to say fame, but like, being well known in the social-media age, I guess. I think no one really knew how to handle it, and it took a couple of years to really get everything down.”
Social media can be full of praise or a pit of criticism for high-profile athletes, but Oleksiak keeps it light and friendly with her 92,000 Instagram followers. She posts occasionally – mostly shots of everyday life as a 21-year-old with her own apartment, a pair of beloved dogs and a robust list of sponsors, including Tide, Cheerios and Vichy sunscreen. She doesn’t engage much if users get cruel, but says she’ll defend a friend being attacked or mischaracterized. (“Then, I’m ruthless,” she says.) Recently she set some Instagram users straight for accusing her close friend, Canadian tennis star Bianca Andreescu, of spending too much time partying and posting selfies.
“Yes you guys would know because you’re professional athletes too,” Oleksiak wrote, punctuated with an eyeroll emoji.
When the pandemic hit in March, 2020, pools in Canada were closed for nearly four months. As people quarantined at home, Oleksiak embraced a rare break from the early-morning wake-ups and hectic training life of an elite athlete. She asked her boyfriend and her long-time best friend, Crystal Luga, to come stay with her at her Toronto apartment. They did home workouts, cooked together, enjoyed TV shows, went for drives and played with Oleksiak’s dogs, a French bulldog named Norman and a Boston terrier named Bean.
“Quarantining with Penny was a blast – we made up for a lot of lost time,” says Luga, who adds her friend really needed the break. “She feels so grateful to have travelled to all the places she’s been for swimming, but she’s never really gone on vacation and unplugged much, because she’s always go, go, go. I think she’s definitely happier now – a lot more fresh and ready to get after it.”
When they’re together, the friends rarely talk about swimming. Luga describes Oleksiak as goofy – she speaks in hilarious voices to her dogs – and “the most there-for-you friend you’ll ever find.” And though she used to be very introverted, Luga says she’s started to open up about herself a lot more.
She also spent a lot of time changing her thinking around her swimming regimen.
“When we came back from our four months off, I knew that we would just be head-down training, and we weren’t going to really have any racing opportunities, so I knew I had to change my mindset,” says Oleksiak, who has also worked with a sports psychologist on the mental aspects of competition. “Now, I love training, and I find a lot of joy in looking at technique stuff.”
Swimmers in Tokyo will have the added psychological hurdle of racing in empty venues. While she loves performing on the world stage in front of big crowds, Oleksiak doesn’t think the lack of fans in Tokyo will faze her.
“I know I’m going to have a huge support system back in Canada of family and friends watching together,” Oleksiak says. “But I honestly can’t see anything in the water while I’m head-down racing anyway, so I’ll be fine.”
In the years since Rio, many of the veteran swimmers who trained with and looked out for Oleksiak – such as Williams and Mainville – have retired. She had to adapt to no longer having them around, and she now enjoys a very competitive training environment in Scarborough with decorated swimmers such as Kayla Sanchez, Rebecca Smith, Taylor Ruck, Sydney Pickrem and Kylie Masse.
Oleksiak herself is now a veteran – one of 10 swimmers on the 26-member swim team with previous Olympic experience, which means she’ll be able to lend support to young first-timers such as 14-year-old Summer McIntosh, who also trains with Titley. Summer beat Oleksiak in the 200-metre freestyle at Olympic trials and has already faced a surge of attention.
Titley wishes people wouldn’t ask, “Is Summer the next Penny?” But he knows he can’t stop the comparisons, and he believes Oleksiak will be a great role model.
“Penny’s great with Summer – chatting with her, joking and laughing with her,” Titley says. “Penny’s ascent was a quick one, and I would say she didn’t handle it as well as she could have or should have afterward – all the people around her and stuff like that. But you wouldn’t expect someone to handle that perfectly – a 16-year-old girl with a first-time experience like that? So I’m sure Penny will impart wisdom from the lessons she’s learned and maybe some of the things she could have done better.”
Oleksiak doesn’t like to make a big deal of that, but she has been very complimentary of Summer, who she says is “all gas and no brakes” in the pool.
“I’ve definitely kind of shown that I’m here for her if she needs me, but I feel like she won’t – she’s very strong-minded and resilient,” Oleksiak says.
Oleksiak has a well-known mentor in her own corner. Last year, she became the first female global ambassador for Phelps Brand, a company led by U.S. swimming legend Michael Phelps and his Hall of Fame coach, Bob Bowman, which makes technologically advanced swim gear. In the process, she forged a friendship with Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, who won 28 medals over five Olympics. Before the pandemic, Oleksiak had dinner with Phelps and hung out with his family, and the two did a promotional photo shoot for the brand.
Phelps, she says, can relate to her accomplishments and the pressure she feels, and he’s always ready with thoughtful advice when she calls or texts.
“I’ve literally called him before crying and being like, ‘Help me get through this,’” Oleksiak said in October after announcing the endorsement deal. “And he is there in an instant.”
She’ll need all the advice she can get going into Tokyo, where she has qualified to race the 100- and 200-metre freestyle, and will play a big part in relays, too.
Her low trial time in the 100-metre felt great, especially because she achieved it before even beginning her final “tapering” process before the Olympics – decreasing her training volume and increasing rest to prep her body to go its fastest at precisely the right moment, with all the world watching.
“It gives me that little extra boost of confidence going into Tokyo, just knowing my training is really paying off, because I think I definitely have more in the tank,” says Oleksiak. “It’s nice going in knowing I’m on the map again for some people.”
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