Road To The Olympic Games

Rio Olympic 2016

'Girl power': Why Canadian women may continue dominating the Olympics

Of Canada's 13 medals so far at the Rio Olympics, 12 have been won by female athletes, and a number of factors suggest that the "girl power" movement is just beginning to pick up steam.

Rio medals signal bright future

Penny Oleksiak reacts after winning gold in the 100-metre freestyle. The young swimmer quickly emerged as the darling of the Rio Olympics for Canadians. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

By Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports

When Andre De Grasse whizzed across the finish line to capture a bronze medal in the men's 100 metres on Day 9 of the Olympics, it marked the first time a Canadian male athlete reached the podium in Rio.

So far the story has been all about Canada's female contingent, and the numbers bear out the girl power narrative. Of Canada's 13 medals so far, 12 have been won by women.

It started on Day 1 with Penny Oleksiak and the Canadian women's 4x100-metre freestyle relay team swimming to bronze. The next night, Oleksiak added a silver in the 100m butterfly. The following day brought two more bronze medals — in the pool with backstroker Kylie Masse, and on the rugby pitch, where Canadians got a chance to watch women compete and win in a sport usually associated with men.

"Girl power, right?" rugby sevens captain Jen Kish told reporters. "I think as females we have something to prove. We can compete in a male-dominated world in sport."

The bronze-medal win captured the prime minister's attention, and the girl power story really got rolling.

Canada's female swimmers finished with six medals. Oleksiak had a hand in four of them, including a gold in the 100m freestyle, grabbing the country's attention and quickly becoming the darling of the Games for Canadians.

"It's been so cool watching these girls," 200m backstroke bronze medallist Hilary Caldwell told the CBC. "It makes the podium seem so normal, which is something Canada has never had in the pool at a Summer Olympics."

Outside the pool, highlights include Rosie MacLennan's repeat gold medal performance on the trampoline and Brianne Theisen-Eaton's inspiring bronze in the heptathlon.

Plan pays off

It's a welcome change from London, where stories about why Canada wasn't winning medals dominated much of the Olympics.

"I think it's amazing," Oleksiak's sister, Hayley, says. "Not just Penny, but what the entire women's team has done to come out and inspire young girls that want to play athletics and show them that you can as a strong woman no matter what age."

The success of Canadian women in Rio has been driven by a number of factors.

First, the raw numbers: Female athletes make up about 60 per cent of Canada's 279-member team.

It's also a result of the plan put in motion by Canadian Olympic officials.

The Own the Podium program was founded in 2005, ahead of the Vancouver Olympics, and has focused on funnelling funding to athletes who have the best chance of success on the international stage.

The focus on the women's relay events was "a very deliberate approach that Swimming Canada and OTP reviewed and discussed," says Own the Podium CEO Anne Merklinger, who notes that a similar plan also helped produce a bronze in the women's track cycling team pursuit event.

"When we analyze the competitive program in the Olympic Games, often there will be some events for females where the depth of the competition is a little shallower relative to the men," Merklinger says.

Olympic role models

The Own the Podium CEO believes the success female athletes have enjoyed in Rio will have a lasting influence.

"Young girls at home are watching Penny Oleksiak and saying, 'I want to get on the podium like Penny.'

"I think this inspires our country and young women and girls from coast to coast to say 'I want get involved in sport.' When these athletes come home they will have an opportunity to share their story and their journey with their communities."

Haley Oleksiak, who has watched her sister's legend grow in Rio, agrees.

"You can be 16 years old and be an empowered woman and go out there and race and have this camaraderie with other women and this respect for each other and this respect for sport," Oleksiak says. "It's very empowering for me, and I know for a lot of young girls out there.  All of them are showing a woman can train to empower herself and empower those around her and really inspire a nation."

At Shendy's Swim School in Toronto, where the Olympics have been a constant on television, Penny Oleksiak's story resonates deeply.

Owner Eric Shendy says Canada's success in the pool will be an inspiration.

"I really think those kids that have started on the competitive track, these Games will push them even further," he says.

"There are some parents who are watching while their kids are swimming, thinking, 'I'm going to push my child a little further. Look what's possible.'" 

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