Penny Oleksiak: Canadian athlete of the year

Penny Oleksiak: Canadian athlete of the year


An Olympic star is born... and she's still growing

By Callum Ng for CBC Sports
December 15, 2016
 

On a summer day in 2015, shortly after her 15th birthday, Penny Oleksiak left a training session and joined some friends for a bike ride to a nearby park in Toronto.

While speeding along, she attempted to jump a streetcar track, but the thin wheels of her racing bike jammed into the narrow gap between the rail and the pavement and she hurtled to the ground.

The resulting fracture in her right elbow added to the pain of her failure, at spring trials, to qualify for the upcoming Pan American Games.

Penny Oleksiak hauled in a gold, a silver and two bronze medals during her stunning star turn in Rio. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
Penny Oleksiak hauled in a gold, a silver and two bronze medals during her stunning star turn in Rio. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Instead of competing in her hometown, Penny joined backstroker Kylie Masse, who had also missed the cut, to cheer on their teammates anonymously from the stands. Wearing their Team Canada t-shirts, the sidelined swimmers had to explain awkwardly to excited children that they were not on the team.

Fast-forward a year, and 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak is a national hero.

At an age when most of her peers are still competing in junior-level meets, Oleksiak won an astonishing four medals in Rio — the most ever by a Canadian at a single Summer Games. She became her country's youngest-ever Olympic champion after tying for the gold medal in the 100-metre freestyle. She was selected to carry the Canadian flag into the closing ceremony at the famed Maracana Stadium.

The accolades keep pouring in. This week, Oleksiak won the Lou Marsh Award for Canada's athlete of the year as selected by a group of media members.

And now she's CBCSports.ca's pick for the Canadian athlete of the year.

Yes, Penny Oleksiak has come very far, very fast.

 
 

Penelope Oleksiak arrived on June 13, 2000, the youngest of three children born to Alison and Richard Oleksiak.

“I [still] call her Penelope. She prefers Penny," says Alison.

All three kids inherited their dad's height (he's 6-foot-9) and athleticism. Jamie stands 6-foot-7 and plays defence for the NHL's Dallas Stars. Hayley is a 5-foot-10 rower for Northeastern University in Boston. Penny, who's eight years younger than her brother and six younger than her sister, measures a shade under 6-foot-2. (Penny also has two step-siblings, Jake and Claire, who grew up primarily in Buffalo but remain close to the family.)

Porridge for breakfast is a big thing in the Oleksiak house. So is cross training, encouraged by Richard, which is why Penny tried gymnastics, ballet, volleyball, figure skating, soccer, softball and cross-country running before settling on swimming.

According to their mom, Hayley is the outgoing one while Penny and Jamie share a quiet disposition, a love of chocolate milk, and a tendency to grow in spurts.

During the 2014-15 swim season, Penny shot up three inches.

“She kind of got these freaky long arms,” recalls Alison.

 
 

The arms were a problem.

Penny's coach at the Toronto Swim Club all but gave up on the backstroke because those "freaky" arms disoriented her technique.

“It was a hot mess,” says Alison. So Penny focused on butterfly and freestyle.

After her bike accident in the summer of 2015, Oleksiak committed to an adapted training program that allowed her elbow to heal in time for the world junior swimming championships in late August. It worked. She won six medals in Singapore — including a relay gold and individual silvers in the 50- and 100-metre butterfly and 100 freestyle.

That set the stage for the Olympic season that would transform her life. 

In the autumn leading up to Rio, Penny began training full-time with Ben Titley, an Englishman who coached the British team at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics and would be Canada’s head coach in Rio.

At Swimming Canada's High Performance Centre in Toronto, Oleksiak was suddenly surrounded by top athletes. She'd chase Pan Am Games champion Chantal Van Landeghem in freestyle sets, or Pan Am silver medallist Zack Chetrat in butterfly.

“The environment made her get fast-tracked a lot quicker than most other kids,” says Titley.

Penny grew another two inches as the Olympics approached, increasing her lever length. Her larger hands and forearms are ideal for hauling water.

At the Canadian Olympic trials in April of 2016, Oleksiak won the 100 free and the 100 fly, and placed second in the 200 free. Her talent was no longer a secret in Canada, but her international racing experience was still limited.

So Titley took her to Mare Nostrum, a European swimming tour, to give her a chance to race the best in the world.

“I think that really gave her the confidence that she could compete and she didn’t need to be afraid of any of those other competitors,” the coach says.

 
 

Still, not even Titley could know Oleksiak’s first Olympic swim meet would be so successful.

“It didn’t surprise me that she swam as fast as she did, but I didn’t expect the results that she got,” he says.

The medal haul began on the first night of swimming events in Rio, touching off a stunning run for Canadian women in the pool.

With Penny swimming anchor, the 4x100-metre freestyle relay team, considered an outside contender for the podium, took bronze.

 

Months later, Oleksiak would thank each of her teammates — Van Landeghem, Sandrine Mainville and another 16-year-old, Taylor Ruck — by name after winning the Lou Marsh.

Their achievement was monumental. The bronze ended Canada's 20-year medal drought in Olympic women's swimming, dating back to Marianne Limpert’s 200 individual medley silver in 1996 — nearly four years before Oleksiak and Ruck were born.

The next night, Oleksiak walked out to the pool for the 100 butterfly final with a lucky loonie in her shoe and came away with the silver medal.

 

She passed the coin to Masse, and her friend and fellow Pan Am Games spectator tied for the bronze in the 100 backstroke on Aug. 8, making it three straight nights with a medal for Canada.

On night five, the 4x200 freestyle relay team won bronze, again with Oleksiak as the anchor. Hilary Caldwell added another bronze, in the 200 back, two nights later.

In between, on Aug. 11, Oleksiak swam the most spectacular race of her young life.

 

When she made her turn at the halfway point of the women’s 100 freestyle final, Oleksiak found herself almost a full second behind the leader — world-record holder Cate Campbell of Australia.

What happened next has been called the greatest length in Canadian swimming history.

Oleksiak powered past Campbell and five others, including the reigning Olympic and world champions, to tie for gold with American Simone Manuel in Olympic-record time.

 

Amid the post-race clamour, Oleksiak clung to the touch pad, gasping for breath, and waited almost half a minute before turning to look at the scoreboard.

She was probably the last person in the building to find out she had won a gold medal.

Why the apparent lack of interest in the result? “As long as I know I put 100 per cent into the race, then I just basically tell myself whatever result is on the board behind me, I’m going to be happy,” Oleksiak says.

Titley marvels at that mindset.

“That’s something that I haven’t seen in any senior athlete — world record holders, world champions, whatever they might be, let alone a 16-year-old,” the coach says.

“That’s probably one of the most telling examples of what makes Penny who she is.”

 
 

With the tranquility of an empty pool as the backdrop, Titley outlines his plans for Oleksiak prior to the short-course world championships in Windsor, Ont., where she would win four medals.

Oleksiak found out she'd won the Lou Marsh while sitting in class at her Toronto high school. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press) Oleksiak found out she'd won the Lou Marsh while sitting in class at her Toronto high school. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Right now, it's downtime.

“Her performance in the pool for this last three months, and arguably for the next three months, is far lower on the totem pole of importance than it will be from April through to the summer, and then in the years to come,” Titley says.

The time since Rio has been more about life outside the pool — friends, school and dealing with her newfound fame.

“Right now I’m just focusing on being in high school, I guess, and swimming,” says Oleksiak, a Grade 11 student at Monarch Park Collegiate in Toronto.

She found out she won the Lou Marsh Award while sitting in law class, where the teacher allowed her to keep checking her phone for the announcement.

The Blue Jays brought Oleksiak in to throw the first pitch before a game in September. (Peter Power/Canadian Press) The Blue Jays brought Oleksiak in to throw the first pitch before a game in September. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

Oleksiak says she can still "go most places without being recognized," but there are moments.

She recalls one from this fall, while waiting outside for a ride after a driver’s license test.

“I probably took about eight photos [with people],” she says.

Her Instagram follower count — that most modern measurement of fame — has soared past 80,000.

She threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Blue Jays game, where she received a standing ovation and fired a strike (of course).

At a Chance the Rapper concert after Rio, she and her friends ended up at the front because people recognized her.

After her races in Windsor, kids ran down to the first row of seats for autographs and photos. Even dripping wet and tired, she would stop.

“I’m just trying to make them happy and they’re really supportive,” she says.

 
 

Although Oleksiak has come an enormous way in the space of a year, Titley insists that more is possible.

For one, she's still growing. The Canadian swimming team's sports scientists expect her to reach a full 6-foot-2.

She's also growing as a swimmer as she refines her craft to match her awesome natural talent.

“There are so many areas where she gets away with actually not being truly world-class, but still is able to get the result that she gets,” Titley says.

They're working on her turns, her butterfly kick is improving, and she’s still not as strong as her training partners in the gym.

"She'll continue to progress," says Titley, "as long as she can understand that even though she’s faster than other people, she's still not as fast as she should be."

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