Road To The Olympic Games

Swimming·Analysis

Penny Oleksiak leaves former Canadian Olympians 'stunned'

Canadian Penny Oleksiak's two Olympic medals in the opening days of the swimming competition have galvanized a program, left former Olympians breathless, and a nation wanting more.

Toronto swimmer talk of the Olympics

Penny Oleksiak has left many Canadians breathless after capturing two swimming medals at the Rio Olympics. (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

By Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports

A number of important choices helped make it possible for 16-year-old swimmer Penny Oleksiak to become a double Olympic medallist in Rio.

She has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship but chose to represent Canada. 

She decided to focus on swimming after dabbling in ballet and gymnastics.

She came to Rio without medal expectations, reducing the pressure on herself.

"Coming in, not really I guess," Oleksiak said when asked if she thought she had a shot at the podium. "I thought I could make a final."

She`s obviously surpassed that. Oleksiak collected a silver medal in the 100-metre butterfly on Sunday night, a day after picking up a bronze as the anchor of the Canadian women's 4x100 freestyle relay team.

Oleksiak didn`t realize just how big a deal the medals were back home in Canada.

"I heard from a really good friend that he was just out walking past a bar when I won my silver and everyone was cheering,`` Oleksiak told the CBC. "That's pretty special that people are watching and know who you are."

They certainly do. Oleksiak joins a small fraternity of Canadian women who have won an Olympic medal in the pool. 

"We are few and far between, unfortunately," says swimming legend Anne Ottenbrite, who won three medals, including gold, at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles." And I think we will have more. This is shaping up to be a powerful, amazing women's team."

Even those in the small fraternity are stunned at what Oleksiak is doing at such a young age.

"To see this girl stand up and be able to be fearless and challenge herself and get her hand on that wall -- that is what racing is all about, standing up at the Olympics and giving everything," says Ottenbrite. "It was amazing,"

After the biggest win of her life, It was at least 30 seconds until Oleksiak even realized she`d won a silver.

"I like to catch my breath and take it all in before I look back [at the results board]," Oleksiak told the CBC.

Ottenbrite appreciates just how special a moment this is.

"I call it the moment in time. Years in the making, moments in the tasting.  Like fine wine."

There will likely be many more moments to celebrate. Oleksiak is considered young by today`s swimming standards. She is likely young enough to compete in two more Olympics.

When Ottenbrite won her gold in Los Angeles, she was 18-years-old and was the oldest swimmer in her the final.

The former Olympian says Canada hasn`t seen a young swimmer like Oleksiak in a long time.

"This shows the power you have when you are in love with what you are doing. To me this is an opportunity for athletes to look up and say 'that can be me.'"

'Her life is going to change'

There are few Canadian Olympians like Oleksiak who have experienced success at such a young age.

Diver Alex Despatie started representing Canada on the international stage when he was 13.

He competed in his first Olympics in 2000 when he was 15, finishing fourth, before winning silver in 2004 and 2008.

"I'm still stunned.  She is 16-years-old here, she's enjoying the ride, every moment," Despatie says from Rio. "What I remember about my first Olympics, I was so young, like Penny. I thought, use them for experience. The next would be for performance.  But she already has two medals."

Having been in a similar situation, he predicts things will never be the same for Oleksiak.

"Once she gets home, her life is going to change rapidly. I don't know if she realizes it," Despatie says from Rio.

Despatie says the buzz around the swimming phenom in Rio is incredible.

"She's going to be a star, that`s for sure, the way people are talking around here," he says. "She`s going to be one of those recognizable faces in the world of swimming, which is massive around the planet.

"Her life will change with these medals.  When she shows up [to compete] there will always be expectations of her performing."

Oleksiak doesn't appear intimidated.  In fact, with she predicts more good things in the pool in Rio.

"I don't think people are really expecting what's going to happen in the next couple of days in the pool," she says.

Oleksiak still has three races left in Rio. And an opportunity to add to a swimming story she is only beginning to write.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.