Road To The Olympic Games

Swimming

How does Penny Oleksiak stay motivated for Tokyo Olympics?

Canadian swimming star Penny Oleksiak will return to Toronto after Rio, where she has two more years before she graduates high school. In that time, and in the four years before Tokyo 2020, she'll face some tough choices.

'Great is about being successful over a long period of time," says swim coach

Swim star Penny Oleksiak will head home to Toronto with four medals, including one gold from the Olympic pool. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

Canada has a swimming mega-star on its hands. The question is: how to keep Penny Oleksiak happy, healthy and swimming fast?

The 16-year-old will head home to Toronto — perhaps after carrying Canada's flag in Sunday's closing ceremony — with four medals including one gold from the Olympic pool.

The teenager boasts the physical gifts of a long, lean, tapered body like a torpedo. She trains in a quality environment in the pool that was the swim venue for last year's Pan American Games.

Her coach Ben Titley says the sky is the limit for Oleksiak, if she wants it.

"If you want to be great, great is about being successful over a long period of time," Titley said Sunday at a news conference in Rio.

"It's not my role to put limits on anybody or anything. Anything is possible as long as you give it the time dedication and if you have the talent to excel at that, you're capable of everything.

"It would be my intention that Penny actually become Canada's most successful Summer Olympian. Why can't Penny be the most medal-winning athlete in the history of Canada?"

Speed skater Cindy Klassen and Clara Hughes, in both speed skating and cycling, are tied for the most career Olympic medals with six apiece.

Swimming has its share of stars who burn out, which makes the 28 medals won by American Michael Phelps over four Olympic Games astounding.

Missy Franklin of the U.S. was 17 when she won four gold medals and a silver in 2012. Now 21 in Rio, she did not make a final and was not chosen to swim the final of the women's relays.

Oleksiak faces a myriad of choices and decisions in the next four years to 2020 in Tokyo.

Maintaining her love for her sport through the rapid life changes that happen between 16 and 20, while handling the sudden attention on her, is a tall order.

"Success is difficult to sustain," Titley acknowledged.

"If she can handle everything else and understands what it means to be an inspiration to people because of what she does, as opposed to what people think she is, then she can do whatever she wants to do."

Oleksiak doesn't expect to fall out of love with her sport.

"Sometimes it's pretty tough to love swimming because you are doing lap after lap after lap, but I think when it all comes down to it, what you're actually getting out of it in the end, it's really worth it," she said.

"What I really love about this sport is getting to be in your own lane and race the people beside you."

The question of Oleksiak's continued success can be applied to the entire Canadian swim team.

Six medals — a gold, a silver and four bronze — was Canada's best performance since 10 at the boycotted Summer Games of 1984. Fifteen finals was the most since 1988.

"It's easy to build something in comparison to staying there," Swimming Canada's high-performance director John Atkinson said.

"Something that can take three years to build can drift away very quickly. We can't rest a day, we can't rest a month for sure."

Eleven women will leave Rio with a swimming medal. Kylie Masse of Lasalle, Ont., and Hilary Caldwell of White Rock, B.C., each won individual bronze medals in backstroke.

Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck, both 16, each collected a pair of freestyle relay bronze medals.

Chantal Van Landeghem, Michelle Williams, Sandrine Mainville, Katerine Savard, Brittany MacLean, Kennedy Goss and Emily Overholt all contributed to the relay medals swimming either the heats or the finals.

A FINA 'B' qualifying time was not good enough to make this Olympic swim team. The standard at April trials was an 'A' time to swim in Rio.

"That brings about a completely different team culture, where everybody knows they can move from the heats through to the semifinals and the finals," Atkinson said.

Oleksiak has two years of high school remaining, so she won't have to immediately deal with the question of staying in Canada or swimming in the NCAA when she graduates.

Her mother Alison said they'll cross that bridge when they come to it.

"The one thing is it's definitely going to be a family decision," she said. "It's not just going to be Penelope's decision."

Oleksiak looked forward to going home, retrieving her dog from the dogsitter and re-connecting with her friends. A television crew followed her around Sunday.

"I've learned to expect the unexpected," Oleksiak said. "I didn't expect to come to this meet and medal as much as I did.

"It was all just really unexpected and, I don't want to say overwhelming, but out of the blue I guess. I trained really hard this year, but I didn't think I could do what I did."