Trying her best to sum up the emergence of Canadian star swimmer Penny Oleksiak at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, teammate Chantal Van Landeghem attempted to put it this way: "For a 16-year-old …"
Van Landeghem stopped abruptly, laughed at what she'd just said, and promptly corrected herself. "Sorry – not just for a 16-year-old. She brings so much to this team."
Then she added, perhaps a bit ominously: "We have only seen the beginning of Penny."
Given the poise and killer instinct Oleksiak has shown on her way to winning three medals during the first week of competition, it can be easy to forget she is only 16. Still in high school, last Saturday the Toronto swimmer became one of the first Canadian medalists born in the 2000s. Her relay teammate, Taylor Ruck, is the other.
After anchoring the Canadian women to a debut bronze medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay Saturday, Oleksiak won silver in the 100-metre butterfly on Sunday, and then anchored to 4x200 freestyle-relay team to a bronze on Wednesday night.
She will swim for a fourth medal Thursday night in the 100-metre freestyle at 10:18 p.m. ET. In her first three races, Oleksiak had the element of surprise, entering Rio as a relative unknown. But after posting the second-fastest time in the semi-finals heading into Thursday's competition, it's safe to say she's now on every other swimmer's radar.
Oleksiak has a strong shot at the podium, and probably her best crack at gold in this race, given how fast she swam in the semi-final Wednesday night. Oleksiak's time of 52.72 seconds was just a hundredth of a second behind Australian Cate Campbell's qualifying time of 52.71, which also happened to be an Olympic record.
The good news is, Oleksiak is swimming at her best. The bad news is, she'll be doing it in an extremely deep and talented field. Beyond Campbell, who is the favourite, Oleksiak is going against Swedish star Sarah Sjostrom, who swam 53.16 in the semi, and Simone Manuel of the United States, who had a time of 53.11.
The Canadian team has leaned heavily on Oleksiak this week and she has produced mightily, anchoring the two relay teams to bronze, and claiming an individual medal. Wednesday night's relay bronze, for example, came just a few hours after Oleksiak swam her 100-metre freestyle semi-final. And because the Rio swimming events are being held late in the evening to accommodate TV schedules, the relay didn't start until just before midnight. It was after 1 a.m. before Oleksiak and her teammates finally left the pool and headed back to the athletes' village.
If fatigue is a factor, Oleksiak isn't showing it. When she won her individual silver medal on Sunday night, she did it on five hours of sleep, saying the rush from her first bronze medal the night before made it too difficult to sleep. Oleksiak showed no signs of being affected in the 100-metre butterfly final, and has joked at these Olympics that because she's only 16, she has a quicker recovery time.
Oleksiak gets Bronze in the 4x100 relay: Her first swim in Rio was a statement. When Oleksiak dove in the pool to complete the final leg of the 4x100 relay on Saturday, it was the first time many competitors from around the world had seen her. Oleksiak spent most of her time competing in Canada's junior ranks until this year, and that makes her a bit of a wild card at the Olympics. She showed exactly why in the relay, holding off the Dutch team with an electrifying final 50 metres that kept them off the podium. Not only did she swim the fastest of the Canadian team, with a 100-metre time of 53.16, Oleksiak was the third fastest that night. She trailed only Sjostrom (52.47) and Campbell (51.97), who are two of the swimmers she's going up against Thursday in the 100-metre freestyle.
Silver in the 100-metre butterfly: If anyone thought Oleksiak's swim in the first relay was a fluke, she put those concerns to rest one night later, taking silver in the butterfly on Sunday night. It was a come-from-behind medal, where she overtook American Dana Vollmer in the homestretch. Oleksiak's time of 56.46 seconds was second only to Sweden's Sjostrom, who won gold in 55.48. That race solidified Oleksiak as a legit threat in the pool in Rio, and showed why her first swimming coach, Gary Nolden, believes one of her biggest strengths is her ability to finish strong.
Bronze in the 4x200: Heading into the race, teammate Brittany MacLean said the Canadians knew that if they could get within striking distance of the podium by the time Oleksiak dove in for the final leg, they would have a good shot at a medal. "She's been closing so incredibly," MacLean said. Swimming on less than two hours rest from her 100-metre freestyle semi-final, Oleksiak delivered, moving the Canadians into third place and never letting go. By the time she touched the wall, Oleksiak had not only passed the fourth-place team from China, but she had beaten them by more than two seconds. Her time of 1:54.94 was the fourth-best time of the night among 32 swimmers. It was also the second-best anchor leg. Only Katie Ledecky of the gold-medal winning American team was faster in the homestretch, with a time of 1:53.74