Aquatics

Penny Oleksiak says 'it was almost scary' to swim as Olympic champion

Penny Oleksiak's days of flying under the radar are long gone but the Canadian swimming sensation has grown more comfortable with her fame ahead of the Tokyo Games where she has a shot at becoming her nation's most decorated Olympian of all-time.

Canadian now empowered by early success, hopeful of more in Tokyo this summer

Managing the expectations that went along with a record-setting Olympic debut five years ago in Rio took some getting used to for Toronto's Penny Oleksiak, who is now motivated by her past success as she looks ahead to the Tokyo Games this summer. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press/File)

Penny Oleksiak's days of flying under the radar are long gone but the Canadian swimming sensation has grown more comfortable with her fame ahead of the Tokyo Games where she has a shot at becoming her nation's most decorated Olympian of all-time.

As a 16-year-old at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Oleksiak's life changed over the course of six days when she became the first Canadian to win four medals in a single Summer Games, including gold in the 100-metre freestyle.

Managing the expectations that went along with a record-setting Olympic debut took some getting used to for Oleksiak, who was once overwhelmed with her accomplishments but has since allowed them to empower her.

"I struggled with having 'Olympic champion' attached to my name at swim meets. It was almost scary for me to go up and race," Oleksiak told Reuters in a video interview. "But now it's more motivating to me.

"When I get up to race and people say, 'Olympic champion, Penny Oleksiak,' I'm like: 'Yeah, that is me. I did that. And I'm going to do it again hopefully and I'm going to show you right now that I can be fast.'"

For Oleksiak, whose Olympic medal haul also includes silver in the 100 butterfly, bronze in the women's 4x100 and 4x200 relays, building on that Rio success has had challenges.

In the 2017 season, one in which Oleksiak was hampered by a concussion and a lingering shoulder issue, the Toronto-based swimmer failed to reach a podium in any individual event.

In 2018, Oleksiak, competing with a heavy heart days after her grandmother's death, left the Commonwealth Games without a medal in an individual event and skipped that year's Pan Pacific Swimming Championships to enjoy some time away from the pool.

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"I just found myself in a slump and I wasn't very happy with what I was doing," said Oleksiak, who during her one-month break visited St. Lucia with her sister and spent time with friends.

"Then I got back into it and it was pretty easy for me to find that motivation again and be really excited about swimming again and figure out how I can be good at something that I love to do and take off the pressure from it."

Stronger swimmer

In a bid to add to her Olympic hardware, Oleksiak has been working furiously on what swimmers call their front-end speed to complement her impressive ability to finish with a flourish.

Oleksiak's back-end speed was on full display during the Rio 100 freestyle final where she was in seventh place at the turn and nearly a full second off the lead but dug deep to pull off a relentless and unforgettable comeback.

While training amid the COVID-19 outbreak has been far from ideal and upended many athletes' routines, Oleksiak feels the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympics has been beneficial to her.

"Last year around the first bit of when COVID started I was pretty nervous about the Olympics," said Oleksiak. "But I kind of came to terms with the fact that [the postponement] would give me another year to prepare so I was really excited for that and I have really been focusing on perfecting what I can."

Oleksiak is among the six swimmers named early to Canada's Olympic team ahead of the national trials which have been postponed until May because of COVID-19.

Already Canada's youngest Olympic champion, Oleksiak will arrive at the July 23-Aug. 8 Tokyo Games three medals shy of becoming her nation's most decorated Olympian - summer or winter.

Should Oleksiak need advice on how to handle the pressure, she can count on American Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, after signing with Phelps Brand last October as a global ambassador.

The swim brand has since launched a collection inspired by Oleksiak and the partnership has led to a friendship between the young Canadian and Phelps.

"They genuinely are like a family to me, they are super nice," said Oleksiak. "Michael is there whenever I need him, to call, to chat whenever."

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