After a needed break, Oleksiak ready to make waves at Canadian swim trials
Breakout star of Rio Olympics makes return to competition in Toronto
There were days when Penny Oleksiak didn't feel like swimming.
So the teenager, whose life was upended after she won four Olympic swimming medals in whirlwind six days in 2016, took a break.
"I guess I did [stop enjoying swimming] for a bit," Oleksiak said. "But it wasn't ever a thought in my mind that I wanted to quit it. I always knew I wanted to keep swimming, but there were definitely days where it was tough to get up and go to the pool. I always tried to push that."
After a disappointing Commonwealth Games a year ago — Oleksiak's best individual results were a pair of fourth-place finishes — she moved to Gainesville, Fla., for a couple of months, where she trained alongside American stars Ryan Lochte and Caeleb Dressel.
Swimming is an unforgiving sport. The time clock seems like the singular measure of success.
And when Oleksiak returned home, things still weren't quite right. So she withdrew from last summer's Pan Pacific championships, swimming's major international meet of the season, and took a month off.
"That was really good for me, I guess I got to do whatever I wanted for a month and I travelled with my sister [to St. Lucia[ and went to concerts [Drake and the Migos and the Boots and Hearts country music festival were just two] with my friends and it was just really worth it," Oleksiak said. "It was a good cleanse for once. I hadn't been on vacation for a while."
Optimistic about return
Oleksiak is back in the pool this week as the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre hosts the Canadian swimming trials.
The 18-year-old was optimistic on Tuesday ahead of her biggest meet since the Commonwealth Games.
"I think so," she said. "I try to stay as positive as I can, and any nerves I do have I try to turn into excitement."
Oleksiak will race in six events, including the 100 freestyle and 100 fly, in which she won gold and silver respectively in Rio. There will be plenty of interest in her results.
She's grown accustomed to the spotlight.
"I feel like after Rio a lot of people were like 'Oh, what's it like being famous?' and I was like 'It's not like that at all,"' she said Tuesday, moments before diving into the Pan Am pool for practice. "I feel like it depends how you see it yourself. Throughout the whole experience I've kind of just seen it as my life, and I just go about everything pretty normally."
Oleksiak's busy past couple of years have seen a couple of coaching changes as well. A year after the Olympics, she left Swimming Canada's high performance centre and returned to her old coach Bill O'Toole at the Toronto Swim Club.
A few weeks after her month off last summer, however, she left O'Toole to return to Ben Titley — the coach that guided her to her breakout Olympic performance — and the national program's high performance centre based at the Pan Am Centre in Scarborough.
Swimming Canada's high performance director John Atkinson said Oleksiak has shouldered a lot for a teenager — and handled it with grace.
Plenty can change
"Penny obviously, if you look back to 2016, her life changed," Atkinson said. "There were things that Penny has worked through in terms of adjusting to the expectation on a young woman who does a fantastic job representing herself both in training and in competition. And it's a very different scenario as an Olympic gold medallist going into different competitions throughout the year as it is when you're a young 15-year-old trying to break through."
More than 600 swimmers will compete this week for spots on six Canadian teams: the FINA world championships, the world para championships, the Pan American Games, the Parapan American Games, the FISU Summer Universiade, and the FINA world junior championships.
A year out from the 2020 Olympics, this summer should give a glimpse at the team for Tokyo. But plenty can change. Oleksiak and backstroker Kylie Masse didn't qualify for the 2015 world championships. Oleksiak instead competed at the world junior championships, while Masse went to the World Universiade where she won gold.
A year later, they'd both not only qualify for the Olympic team but go on to star in Rio, where Masse won backstroke bronze.
Watch live action from the Canadian Swimming Trials beginning Wednesday (CBCSports.ca, 5:45 p.m. ET).