Kate Hulford has only been swimming for three years, training at the Toronto Swim Club, but the 12-year-old has established quite a presence on the podium in that time. She just recently won five medals at a festival meet, and her collection grows.
"[My first medal] pushed me harder. It was the first event of the whole meet, so I got my medal and thought, I want to win more of these. And so I did," she says simply.
The young competitive swimmer, whose father formerly swam for the Canadian national team, dreams of standing on the Olympics podium. After watching fellow TSC-trained Penny Oleksiak strike gold, Kate thinks of it more as an attainable goal.
"I'm inspired, really. It's amazing that she can do this stuff at such a young age," she says. "It makes me think … if she can do that, if I work as hard as her or harder, I can do that."
Her mother, Kerry Hulford, is excited about her renewed motivation, even if a bit more realistic about her aspirations.
"I just find the sport of swimming does so much for [girls'] self-confidence and body image," Ms. Hulford says. "It's just great to see all the girls of all different shapes and sizes just out there and proud of the strength that their body has."
Only 16 and making her debut on the world stage at Rio, Ms. Oleksiak is an overnight celebrity after winning four medals – one gold, one silver and two bronze – with another shot at the podium Saturday.
She will return a hero to so many young swimmers at her club, including Kate and fellow competitive swimmer Rhys Bernard, 12, who now see their greatest dream within reach as they cheer on their clubmate in Rio.
"It's going to push me during practice, it's going to push me more at meets. I want to be at the Olympics in 2020 and 2024 and be like Penny," Rhys says.
"It just inspires me as a young swimmer … that no one expected her to get a medal but she has four already. In the next Olympics, I wanna see her and I will maybe even go with her … so I can see her winning all golds," she says.
Jane Wright, who coaches a number of young swimmers and rising stars such as Kate and Rhys at TSC, is looking forward to the fresh burst of excitement when the club restarts in September.
"From my perspective, it will be a wonderful opportunity to use her success to teach a whole lot of important pieces, in terms of commitment and perseverance, all the things that are important to be successful in sports," she says.
A year ago, Ms. Oleksiak failed to qualify for the Pan Am Games. Her rapid rise to success has startled even those who have long known her as a talented athlete whose strength belies her young age.
At Monarch Park Collegiate, where she will begin Grade 11 in the fall, coaches and staff members are still a little dazed at the possibility of having an overnight celebrity on their hands as she balances school and gruelling training with her national coach.
Jenna Grzela, who runs the swim program at Monarch Park, says she's overwhelmed but proud at the idea of having coached an Olympic gold medalist who remains so humble and friendly.
"She could probably teach all of us a lot about swimming," she said, chuckling. "She's done such an enormous job and has represented Canada so well at the Olympics and we're so proud of her."