Skip to main content
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Once she'd completed one of the most remarkable performances in Canadian Olympic history on Thursday night, Penny Oleksiak didn't seem to know what to do with herself.

It was nearly 30 seconds after touching the wall that she allowed herself to turn around and look at the leader board. Once she did, she didn't seem particularly happy to have tied American Simone Manuel for the gold in Olympic record time. She looked stunned.

During the medal ceremony, Oleksiak didn't know when to get up on the podium, looking over a bit desperately to Manuel for a hint. She didn't know who to hug or when. She didn't know to hold up her medal for cameras. She didn't know you're expected to bite down on gold. Every single thing about this seemed not just new, but completely foreign.

Story continues below advertisement

Related: New swimming star Penny Oleksiak showed talent from a young age

Rio Olympics Day 7: What to watch and the latest news

You were reminded that Oleksiak is a 16-year-old girl everywhere but in water.

"She's naïve, but in a good way," relay teammate Katarine Savard said of her. "She's not asking herself any questions. … She just wants to win."

But in her natural habitat, the endearingly goofy teen has become one of sports' most fearsome closers.

How long does it take to become one of the greatest athletes in Canadian history? Apparently, you can get it done in six days. Even more efficiently than God.

Oleksiak didn't just win the 100m freestyle on Thursday. She re-set a national expectation for what is possible on this stage. She's made Canada a Summer Games country again.

Story continues below advertisement

This accomplishment must now be stood up beside the greatest individual performances in Canadian Olympic history – Donovan Bailey's world record in Atlanta; Kerrin Lee-Gartner winning the only elite downhill of her career in Albertville; Ben Johnson's world-altering, if ultimately ill-fated, turn in Seoul.

Those victories are unforgettable markers in Canadian history. They are 'Where were you when it happened?' moments.

Oleksiak's 52.7 seconds in the pool were another one of those. If you saw it, you will probably never forget it. Because it just shouldn't have happened.

She started capably, but fell behind quickly. At the turn, Oleksiak was seventh of eight competitors. She swam the final half nearly a half-second faster than any of her competition. In the great churn of the finish, it didn't seem possible. But it was.

After the medals were handed out, Oleksiak went into the stands to find her family. Her sister was in tears. Her mother beamed. She gripped both tightly. Her brother, Dallas Stars defenceman Jamie, gave her a reluctant half-embrace and an awkward pat on the back.

"We don't hug a lot. And whenever we do it's my mother saying, 'Penny, hug your brother, he's leaving for a year. You've got to give him a hug'. And I'm like oh okay, fine."

Story continues below advertisement

You're standing there looking at her. She's a giant. Nearly 6-foot-2. As long and supple as a porpoise. But she's grinding her foot into the carpet uncomfortably at all the attention. She doesn't know where to look. She's a killer and a kid, at the same time.

In the last week, she has managed a trick only the true greats can perform – not just peaking at the right moment, but extending what that peak should ever reasonably have been. In the unpopular argot of the day, she's a winner.

A few days ago, no one had any idea who Oleksiak was.

When her co-medallist, the American Manuel, was asked about her, she said, "I just met Penny, like, today, and she's awesome."

Now Oleksiak is Wayne Gretzky or Steve Nash. No Canadian will ever forget her name.

We're building her back story out of several familiar tropes. Daughter and sibling to other elite athletes. Cut from swim teams as a youngster (shades of Michael Jordan there). An eerie, uncommon focus as a pre-teen. Sudden emergence when it mattered. Her cause taken up by colleagues and proxies who will tell you they knew all along.

Story continues below advertisement

The storyline is so familiar and comforting, it's essentially Biblical.

Most charmingly of all, she seems completely oblivious to her talent and the way the world is changing around her. Who could blame her? It's happening hour-by-hour here in Rio.

She'll be the flag bearer at the closing ceremonies. The deliberations to decide the next Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's top athlete will now amount to a unanimous show of hands. When she gets home, she'll be the biggest thing in the world.

The really amazing thing? She could do this again. Maybe twice. Maybe three times. And maybe better each time.

Michael Phelps was 15 at his first Olympics. He best placing was a fifth-place finish. Four years later, he won six golds. Four years after that, eight more.

Oleksiak has the physicality, the disciplinary range and raw ability to do for women's swimming what Phelps did for the men. She's already well ahead of his pace.

Story continues below advertisement

Dozens of people have those things. None of them won four medals at not just their first Olympics, but what was their first major senior tournament.

Where does that come from?

"I think it's just from, um, I don't know, swimming, I guess. And I've always wanted to win, which is kind of weird to say. I get a little agitated when I don't. I guess it's just from that."

It's not much of explanation, but considering what she's done, it makes perfect sense.

Penny Oleksiak, not just Canada's greatest ever Summer Olympian, but on the cusp of becoming our very best Olympian, full-stop.

That's a lot of pressure. It can't be anything close to making the turn in seventh and still believing you've got this one.

Story continues below advertisement

Can she keep this up over years?

"Why not?" Savard said of her teammate's chances, both specifically and generally. "When you have a lane, you have a chance. So why not?"

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies