Penny Oleksiak chasing Canadian Olympic history after making 200m freestyle final

Penny Oleksiak has a chance to win her sixth Olympic medal after qualifying for the women's 200-metre freestyle final.

Toronto swimmer has chance for record 6th Summer Olympic medal

Penny Oleksiak was fourth in her 200m freestyle semifinal to qualify sixth for Wednesday's final. (Getty Images)

There's just something about the Olympics that brings out the best in Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak. 

She lives for the big moment and thrives under pressure. And she's doing it again in Tokyo, even though for the past number of years she hasn't been performing her best. 

"I love stepping up to the occasion. Being able to step up on the world stage when everyone is watching is very exciting," Oleksiak told CBC Sports. "I love how everyone is always so positive. It's just awesome to be a part of Team Canada."

And now Oleksiak will swim for Canadian Olympic history on Wednesday morning in Tokyo (Tuesday night ET) after qualifying for the women's 200-metre freestyle final.

WATCH | Penny Oleksiak advances to 200m freestyle final:

If the 21-year-old Toronto swimmer makes the podium, it will be her sixth Olympic medal, the most by any Canadian athlete at a Summer Games. 

She won four in her first Olympics in 2016 in Rio — one gold, one silver and two bronze — and anchored the women's 4x100 freestyle relay team to silver earlier in these Olympics.

Oleksiak finished fourth in her semifinal heat in a time of one minute 56.39 seconds, 1.57 seconds behind winner Ariarne Titmus, the Australian star who won gold in the 400m freestyle on Sunday. Oleksiak's time was sixth fastest of the eight who advanced.

"Definitely tougher than yesterday. I wasn't expecting what I did yesterday to drop a best time like that," she said. "Today with finals in the morning it's definitely an adjustment, but I honestly thought I was ninth so I'm happy to be in the final and I'm excited to swim."

Teen Summer McIntosh just misses making final

Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh was fifth in her semifinal and did not qualify for the final. The 14-year-old from Toronto was just outside the top eight with a time of 1:56.82.

Sydney Pickrem closed out the first session of the day at the pool for the Canadians by earning a spot in the women's 200m individual medley final.

Pickrem withdrew from the women's 400m IM just days earlier due to illness unrelated to COVID-19. But on Tuesday in the pool Pickrem was able to power her way into the final with a time of 2:09.94.

WATCH | Sydney Pickrem moves into final of 200m IM:

Oleksiak's performance in Rio five years ago catapulted the then 16-year-old into Canadian sporting stardom. But the pressure became too great at times for Oleksiak. In the years leading up to Tokyo she was not swimming her best and talked openly about the anxiety she had around competing.

She hadn't been swimming her best and she knew it. 

"I feel like I have been counted out," she said in early July. "I've been seeing these Olympic projections of finals and stuff like that. And I'm never in it." 

But at the Canadian nationals in June, Oleksiak swam her fastest time in the 100m freestyle event since winning gold in the event in Rio.

Canada's Summer McIntosh looks at her results in the women's 200m freestyle semifinal on Tuesday in Tokyo. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Nobody really knew what to expect from Oleksiak going into the trials. Even she admitted she wasn't completely sure how she would perform. 

Oleksiak needed that strong swim at the qualifying event for her confidence heading into the Games — she was brimming with it after that performance. 

After that race in June, Oleksiak took to Instagram, posting "count me out again."

And a few days later in Vancouver, at Team Canada's swimming staging camp in Vancouver, Oleksiak reiterated that feeling.

"If you know me, you know I'm going to be good for the Olympics," she said then. 

And Oleksiak still hasn't competed in the event she captured gold in Rio in a tie with American Simone Manual. The women's 100m freestyle goes Friday morning at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.


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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