Swimming

Penny Oleksiak wearing her success with ease following historic Olympic performance in Tokyo

At 21, Penny Oleksiak is benefiting from the maturity and experience of a swimmer that's been through a lot, has won a lot and wants to win many more races in the years to come. 

Canada's most decorated Olympian 'in a good place' ahead of competitions this summer

Penny Oleksiak won two bronze medals and one silver at the Tokyo Olympics last summer. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Canada's most decorated Olympian is feeling as good as ever, both mentally and physically, in the wake of her most recent Olympic triumph. 

This week at the Swimming Canada trials in Victoria, B.C., Penny Oleksiak has been laughing, joking and soaking up every moment she's getting with her teammates. 

On Thursday night at the Saanich Commonwealth Place, Oleksiak was racing for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics. Her preparation for the event was a little derailed due to getting COVID just three weeks ago. 

Unfazed, Oleksiak finished second in the 200m freestyle event behind Summer McIntosh. Taylor Ruck placed third. Oleksiak posted a time of one minute 57.01 seconds, good enough to qualify for the world championships this summer in Budapest. 

"I'm having a good time. This was my first time racing since the Olympics so it's definitely a bit nerve-wracking," Oleksiak told CBC Sports after the race. "I was going to try and be a hero in that free and then in the last 75 [metres] I was like, you just need to make the team and touch second. Not try and kill myself."

When it came time to presenting the medals, Oleksiak, McIntosh and Ruck stepped on the podium together and embraced. 

It was a beautiful scene inside the venue, that in so many ways highlighted the positive vibes around the team right now — something not lost on Oleksiak, who won three medals in Tokyo to bring her career total to seven, the most by any Canadian Olympian. 

WATCH | Summer McIntosh leads Canadian quartet in 200m:

Josh Liendo sets Canadian record in 100 metre butterfly at trials

4 months ago
Duration 1:55
Josh Liendo of Markham, Ont., set the Canadian record time of 50.88 in the 100 m butterfly Wednesday in Victoria, B.C.

"It's fun to be around everyone, especially right now," she said. "We've been trying to make the most of it and having fun."

It couldn't be a more different situation from what she experienced after her first Games in 2016. 

It's been well-documented Oleksiak struggled both physically and mentally after the Rio Olympics. She shot to superstardom seemingly overnight at just 16 years old, becoming the first Canadian athlete to win four medals at a Summer Olympics. 

But in the weeks, months and years that followed overwhelming success, Oleksiak was plagued with injury and mental health struggles. 

"There is a lot of pressure that people don't talk about and people don't know about. I have to listen to myself more and back then I wasn't. Now I'm taking time to focus on myself," Oleksiak said. "It's been a learning experience. I didn't get a lot of help after 2016 from anyone really. I was kind of just going through it on my own."

Oleksiak walks onto the pool deck at the Tokyo Olympics. (Associated Press)

Closed off after Rio

After these latest Games in Tokyo, Oleksiak once again ran into some injury issues. She was forced to withdraw from the short course world championship in December because of a back injury. 

But unlike after Rio, when she wasn't giving herself the time and the space to recover properly, this time Oleksiak pulled back. 

"I've had some really good training over the last six months. I was struggling a little bit going into December with my back and everything. But I was able to turn it around in January and get myself right for training," she said. 

At 21 years old there's still so much runway ahead of Oleksiak. And it seems that lessons learned from past challenges are paying huge dividends now as she ramps up for another Olympic push. 

"Right now I'm really in a good place. If you had talked to me after 2016, I was pretty closed off after those Games. I didn't really talk about what I was going through. Recently I've been talking a lot more about the struggles I went through post-Olympics 2016."

Earlier this week Oleksiak's teammate and Olympic champion Maggie Mac Neil told CBC Sports she would not be competing in any individual events at the world championships this summer — including the 100m butterfly in which she won gold in Tokyo — citing post-Olympic blues and some mental health struggles as the reason. 

Oleksiak says she understands fully what Mac Neil is going through and supports her decision to take whatever time she needs to recover and get healthy. 

"I think everyone now around the athletes have learned that lesson and I hope people like Maggie are going to be able to pull through and figure it out," Oleksiak said. "I'm always here to talk to anyone so if she needs me I'm here."

Oleksiak throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the start of a Blue Jays game last September. (Jon Blacker/Canadian Press)

Maturity and experience

It's a massive shift in the sport and one that Oleksiak welcomes, having gone through what she describes as "hell and back" in the years between Rio and Tokyo. 

Now she's swimming freely and it's showing in Victoria. 

On Friday Oleksiak is competing in the 100m freestyle final, the same event she won in Rio six years ago. In the morning heats Oleksiak posted the fastest time in 53.70. 

She's showing the maturity and experience of a swimmer that's been through a lot, has won a lot and wants to win many more races in the years to come. 

"That's kind of what I've had to teach myself, is finding that motivation, and for me I think that's listening to my body and listening to myself and knowing when I need a break," Oleksiak said. 

"I'm definitely going to need to take a break before the next Olympics so I can really ramp up training and get ready for it. I'm just trying to enjoy training and racing and be happier on my team."

McIntosh wins 3rd event at trials

Summer McIntosh continued to burn up the Saanich Commonwealth Place pool on Friday night, winning her third event here at the national trials.

The 15-year-old has won every race she's competed in throughout the event. McIntosh won the women's 200m fly in a time of 2:07.60, which qualifies her for the event at the world championships this summer.

Kayla Noelle Sanchez, who celebrated her 21st birthday yesterday, won the 100m free in a time of 53.68. Oleksiak finished second in a time of 53.71 and Taylor Ruck placed third in a time of 53.99. All three swimmers were under FINA qualifying time.

In the men's 100m final, Josh Liendo continued his winning ways. Liendo stopped the clock in 48.35 to win but was pushed by Ruslan Gazlev and Yuri Kisil.

Gaziev came in second with a time of 48.41 and Kisil won bronze in a time of 48.80.

Liendo and Gaziev were under the FINA qualifying time.

WATCH | Bennett wins men's S14 100m butterfly:

Nicholas Bennett sets 3rd national record at Canadian swimming trials

4 months ago
Duration 2:26
Nicholas Bennett wins the men's 100m butterfly S14 in a time of 57.94 for his third Canadian record at the national swimming trials.

Nicholas Bennett, 18, from Parksville, B.C., has had a spectacular meet. On Friday night he set his third Canadian record during trials, winning the men's S14 100m butterfly.

Bennett made his Paralympic debut in Tokyo and set Canadian record times in all four events he competed in there.

There are two more days of competition at the national trials. More than 550 swimmers from across Canada are competing in Para events, junior events and senior events all looking to earn their spots on the Canadian teams heading to world championships this summer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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