In her signature event at the Tokyo Olympics, Penny Oleksiak won’t take home a medal from the Tokyo Olympics despite swimming a personal best time in the event.
Canada’s swimming superstar finished fourth in a lightning-fast women’s 100-metre freestyle final on Friday in Tokyo in a new national record time of 52.59 seconds. She surged in the back end of the race but missed the podium by a hair.
The race was astonishingly fast. Emma McKeon of Australia took gold (51.96), Siobhan Haughey of Hong Kong silver (52.27), Australia’s Cate Campbell bronze (52.52).
The Canadian seemed upbeat speaking to reporters after the race, raving about how women are driving swimming to new levels globally and determined to keep pace. The top five finishers in this race all swam faster than the 52.70 that Oleksiak clocked for Olympic gold five years ago. It had the Canadian already thinking about the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“I’m honestly kind of happy the final was so fast,” said Oleksiak. “It just shows that women in the 100 free especially are really moving forward and it’s getting a lot faster every year. It makes me excited to race in 2024 to figure out the race a little bit more and see how I can get into the 51s. In ‘24, the whole race could be in the 51s for all we know.”
Oleksiak was chasing a third medal at these Olympics. Added to the four she earned in Rio, it would have given her solo claim to the title of Canada’s most decorated Olympian.
With six career medals to her name, Oleksiak is tied with speedskater Cindy Klassen and speedskater/cyclist Clara Hughes as Canada’s most decorated Olympians.
“I have six Olympic medals; there are only three people in Canada who can say that,” said Oleksiak on Friday in Tokyo with a laugh. “I’m not too concerned. If I have six Olympic medals, I have six Olympic medals. Whatever.”
Oleksiak already swam an ultra-fast anchor leg to push Canada’s 4 x 100-metre freestyle relay team to silver in Tokyo, and sped to a bronze in the 200-metre freestyle event.
Oleksiak could still earn another in Tokyo, which would give her seven and put her on a pedestal of her own. As Canada’s fastest 100-metre freestyler, she is likely to still swim the women’s 4 x 100-metre medley relay.
A medal in the 100-metre freestyle, though, in a power-packed field of sprinters, deep into the Olympic meet, was a tall order. Friday’s in Tokyo was her ninth swim of these Olympics.
It followed on the heels of a busy Thursday in which she swam the 100-metre freestyle semi-final, and less than two hours later anchored the 4 x 200-metre freestyle relay team to a fourth-place finish – also in Canadian record time. She had to shake off the disappointment of narrowly missing the podium there – which would have rewarded a medal to seven different women who shared in the heats and final.
“You can’t get all the medals all the time,” she had explained after that one with a sort of ‘oh-well’ smile.
Flush it. There were more medals to chase.
In between, it was eat, soak in ice baths, physio, sleep, get back on the bus from the Athlete’s Village to the Tokyo Aquatic Centre, and go try again.
“I’ve had optimal recovery,” said Oleksiak. “It’s just a matter of figuring out the race.”
Oleksiak was the defending gold medalist in the 100-metre freestyle, which she won as an unassuming 16-year-old in Rio during a whirlwind four-medal meet, tying that day with American Simone Manuel. On that August day in 2016, the lanky teenager slowly removed her goggles after the race, and it took her nearly 20 seconds to realize what Canadians had already seen on live television – she won.
In the years in between, she had ups and downs, struggled with the pressures that came with being an Olympic champion, a teenage phenom, and Canadian celebrity with many new obligations on her time. She blossomed from a teen into an adult with an apartment and dogs of her own. Michael Phelps chose her as the first global ambassador for his swimsuit brand, and became a friend and mentor. She withstood the pool shutdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic – especially rigorous in Canada compared to in other swimming nations.
Most swimming experts left her off their lists of predicted medalists. Her response to that? “Don’t count me out”.
This time, she raced the 100-metre freestyle final in Tokyo, not as an unknown teen, but as the reigning champ. Oleksiak said she was nervous overnight, waking up every few hours.
“Everyone gets really nervous for an Olympics,” said Oleksiak. “When you’re in an Olympic final with eight girls who can all go 52-mids? It’s pretty daunting.”
The six-foot Canadian was seventh at the turn of the race and pressed, just like she did in Rio on the back half of the race. She surged but not quite fast enough against her speedy competitors. She set a new Canadian record, but it wasn’t enough for a medal.
“I knew when I was in my turn, it wasn’t my best turn and I was a little frustrated with that,” said Oleksiak. “I did my best bringing it home and I did the best I could bringing it home. If I got fourth, I got fourth. It’s still fourth best in the world so I’m not complaining.”
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