Road To The Olympic Games

Swimming

Penny Oleksiak's Olympic success no surprise to former swim coaches

Penny Oleksiak is now an Olympic icon. The teenage sensation became the first Canadian summer athlete to win four medals at one Olympics after she captured gold in the women’s 100-metre freestyle. While her scintillating performances have captivated Canada, her former coaches are not surprised.

Teenager 1st Canadian to win 4 medals at 1 Summer Games

Penny Oleksiak, along with her four medals, will arrive home in Toronto this morning after a memorable breakout performance at the Olympic Games in Rio. (Canadian Press)

By Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports

It didn't take long for coaches at the Toronto Swim Club to realize Penny Oleksiak had the potential for greatness.   

She walked through the doors as a goofy, talented and very tall 12-year-old. 

"The first time I met Penny I thought she looked like an athlete, very tall for her age," said Bill O'Toole, who was Oleksiak's coach from age 12 until last September. "When you think of an athlete, she was an athlete." 

Dave Ling, who worked with Oleksiak as an assistant coach for four years, said the young swimmer made a great first impression.

"When she first came, we went out to Calgary for a junior nationals type meet and she did very well," he said. "We really had no idea who she was when we first got there, but we learned pretty quick."

Oleksiak found early success, breaking age group records when she was 12. 

"She really started humming at 13, 14 years old. She has always been a prodigy that we knew was going to be something special," Ling said. "I have seen a lot of talent come through the sport. I swam for 10 years, I have coached for eight and she is a talent that is pretty unique."

Even so, Ling said, it would have been a successful Olympics for Oleksiak if she had simply reached a few finals.

Now she stands alone in Canadian Olympic summer lore. 

The teenage sensation became the first Canadian summer athlete to win four medals at one Olympics after she captured gold in the women's 100-metre freestyle. The Toronto native tied American Simone Manuel in an Olympic-record time of 52.70 seconds. 

And there could be more to come. 

Should Oleksiak and the women's 4x100 medley relay team reach the podium on Saturday, the young star would match speedskater Cindy Klassen's record of five medals at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics — mind-boggling considering she was barely on the radar coming into Rio.

O'Toole wasn't sure what to expect before the Games, but knew anything was possible.

"Nobody should ever underestimate Penny, because she always has exceeded expectations. I was expecting her to perform best times," O'Toole said from Toronto. "But I am absolutely not shocked at what she has done."

Rare talent 

While many expected Oleksiak to be competitive, it was thought any podium finishes would likely come in the next Olympics. 

But coaches who worked closely with her say her Olympic success is driven by intangibles few swimmers have.

"I have never seen her react poorly to pressure. Usually people get tight and nervous," Ling said. "The Canadian national team is full of really great special 'one per cent' type swimmers. She is the one per cent of the one percent."

O'Toole said Oleksiak is fully aware of the moment she is in and what is possible.

"She doesn't take it for granted. What people don't see is this is somebody very dedicated to what she does and really wants to perform well."

Both men predict Oleksiak will leave Rio as one of this country's greatest Olympians.

Ling points out that not even U.S swimming legend Michael Phelps had success this young. Phelps finished fifth as a 15-year-old at his first Olympics in 2000.

"This doesn't happen. Everybody knows that as long as Penny stays healthy she should be one of the best swimmers in the world four years from now," Ling said. "She is well on her way to being the best swimmer in Canadian history, male or female."

Oleksiak grew her legend Thursday night.

And the 4x100 medley relay Saturday?

"We have backstroker who won a bronze medal, Kylie [Masse]. We have a breaststroker who finished fifth in Rachel Nicol and Penny who finished second in the 100 fly," explains Ling. "If they are not first or second after the first three legs before giving it to Chantal Van Landeghem on the freestyle, then I will be absolutely astonished."

Canadians have quickly learned, it's the kind of pressure Oleksiak thrives on in the pool.