Penny Oleksiak powers Canadian women to 1st medal of Tokyo Olympics

Penny Oleksiak has done it again at the Olympics. In a memorable anchor leg, the 21-year-old swimmer powered Canada's 4x100-metre freestyle relay team to a silver medal, the country's first of Tokyo 2020. 

Oleksiak, Mac Neil, Smith, Sanchez swim to silver in 4x100 freestyle relay

From left to right, Canada's Penny Oleksiak, Rebecca Smith, Maggie Mac Neil and Kayla Sanchez pose with their silver medals from the 4x100-metre freestyle relay at the Tokyo Olympics. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Penny Oleksiak has done it again at the Olympics.

In a memorable anchor leg, the 21-year-old swimmer powered Canada's 4x100-metre freestyle relay team to a silver medal — the country's first of Tokyo 2020. 

At one point early in the heart-stopping race inside the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, Canada was off the podium entirely.

By the time Oleksiak blasted into the pool for the final 100 metres, the Canadians were in fourth, trailing Australia, Sweden and the United States.

WATCH | Canada wins its 1st medal of Tokyo 2020:

Penny Oleksiak looks back at monumental Olympic debut

3 years ago
Duration 6:09
Toronto's Penny Oleksiak claimed 4 swimming medals at Rio 2016 when she was 16-years-old.

That's when Oleksiak started to close on U.S. swimmer Simone Manuel, with whom she tied for gold five years ago in the women's 100 freestyle in Rio de Janeiro.

It was time for another showdown at the Olympics — but on Sunday morning, Oleksiak rose to a different level.

With both swimmers battling each other stroke for stroke through the first 75 metres, the Canadian surged ahead, touching the wall three one-hundredths of a second before Manuel.

"I just knew I wasn't going to touch third," Oleksiak, of Toronto, said immediately following the race. "And when I make a decision in the race I have to execute it.

"I wanted a silver medal for these girls and I wanted it so bad I wouldn't accept anything else."

WATCH | Canadian women award each other silver medals:

The pandemic meant less time in the pool for Canadian swimmers: What does that mean for Tokyo?

2 years ago
Duration 11:19
Canada is in a golden age of swimming with multiple medal contenders heading to Tokyo. But the pandemic may be the biggest challenge between them and the podium.

Canada completed its relay in three minutes 32.78 seconds, while Australia won gold in a world-record time of 3:29.69. The U.S. took bronze in 3:32.81.

The group of four Canadian women embraced one another inside the mostly empty venue, their emotions clearly evident as they basked in the moment.

"I think it's kind of crazy. We were all hopeful we would get a medal. We didn't know what medal it would be. But we just wanted one. For it to be silver is crazy," Oleksiak said.

Members of the Canadian women's 4x100-metre freestyle relay team celebrate after winning silver for the country's first medal of the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday in Japan. (Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Network)

Oleksiak finished in a time of 52.26, the third-fastest anchor.

She has now won five Olympic medals and is tied as Canada's most decorated Summer Olympian alongside rower Lesley Thompson-Willie and sprinter Phil Edwards. 

"I forgot I have four others and I'm excited to bring this one home. And hopefully we can bring more home," Oleksiak said.

It has been a long journey back to the Games for Oleksiak. She's talked openly about some of the anxiety she faced and struggles in the pool. But two weeks before coming to Tokyo, Oleksiak was beaming with confidence.

"If you know me, you know I'm going to be good for the Olympics," she told CBC Sports at the team's staging camp in Vancouver. 

She delivered in the big moment once again. 

WATCH | Oleksiak reflects on Rio:

Total team effort

But for as spectacular as Oleksiak was, she knows the silver medal was a complete team effort. 

"We've all grown up with each other. We've all known each other since we were 10. It's just crazy that 10, 11 years later on an Olympic team and winning a silver medal is wild," Oleksiak said. 

Kayla Sanchez, the 20-year-old from Toronto, started the relay for Canada, surging through the water and setting the stage for Maggie Mac Neil of London, Ont.

Mac Neil, who about an hour earlier swam in the 100 butterfly semifinal, showed no signs of fatigue and held her own through her part of the race.

"I know from experience my second swim is usually better because I'm warmed up already. I was really looking forward to it," said Mac Neil, 21. 

"Having these girls with me definitely gave me that extra boost to get silver."

Canada's Maggie Mac Neil swims in a heat for the women's 100-metre butterfly at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on Saturday in Tokyo, Japan. (Martin Meissner/The Associated Press)

Then it was time for Rebecca Smith of Red Deer, Alta., to launch off the blocks and into the pool. She put Canada in fourth place, in range of the podium. 

"Oh my goodness I was screaming so loud. Penny finished so great and I'm just so proud to be a part of this team and swim with these girls," Smith said. 

It was a quick turnaround for the Canadian team who, about 12 hours earlier, qualified for the final by posting the third-fastest time in semis.

But when it mattered most, the Canadian swimmers brought their best and secured silver. 

"I have a lot of faith in these people. If you want someone to anchor it's Penny. And if you want someone to swim second it's Maggie. And Rebecca is a great trainer and consistent. We just did what we needed to do," Sanchez said. 

Training challenges in pandemic

Coming into the competition, Canadian swimmers and coaches talked about the challenging conditions they've faced over the last 15 months. Many said no other country in the world had been impacted in the pool like the Canadians.

In many cases, Canadian swimmers had to leave their usual training spots and change their entire programs, including coaches and venue, just to be able to prepare for the Olympics. 

"It was a great result and a lot went into that from the swimmers, coaches and support staff," high performance director John Atkinson said. 

"Relays mean a lot and the programs that have been supported by Own the Podium, Sport Canada and COC helped create the environment to produce that result."

It sets the stage for what Canadian swimmers hope is a medal haul in Tokyo. The team racked up six medals in Rio in 2016, the third-most by a Canadian team in the pool.

WATCH | Canadian swimmers faced tough training conditions in pandemic:

There's momentum now — and the swimmers can feel it.

"The sprint girls in Rio, they set the culture. Started the meet good. We have another 14 sessions. Hopefully this gets everyone in the right mood," Sanchez said. 

There were concerns the challenges the Canadian swimmers faced throughout the pandemic would be too steep, that maybe Canada's swimmers wouldn't be able to deliver in Tokyo like they did five years ago in Rio. 

The expectations were tempered. But on Sunday in Tokyo, the Canadians showed their resilience. 

And the pool party has begun.


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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