By Jim Morris
There were times last year when Penny Oleksiak felt like a young colt trying to gain control of her gangly limbs.
The 16-year-old, who measures six-foot-one, grew over an inch. There were frustrating days when her brain knew what she wanted to do but her body didn’t always receive the message.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but in swimming it’s so weird,” said the Toronto native who trains at the High Performance Centre – Ontario.
“When I’ve grown a little bit more I don’t know where to pull the water. My kick is off from my pull. It’s all kind of a mess.”
Even now, as she prepares for this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janerio, Oleksiak feels her body changing.
“There are a lot of days when I don’t feel like I know my body very well,” she said. “There are some days where I get a growth spurt and I can’t even swim right because I don’t know what I am doing.”
Ben Titley, Swimming Canada’s Olympic team head coach, said he’s seen changes in Oleksiak over the last three or four months.
“She’s turning from being a young girl to being a young woman,” said Titley, who also coaches Oleksiak at the Ontario high performance centre. “She’s getting stronger.
“We’ve all just got to cross our fingers and hope for the best, that she doesn’t go through another spurt right before the Olympics or during the Olympics. The challenge always is, as you start to rest or taper and give your body a bit of a break, it’s going to grow.”
Oleksiak had a breakout performance during the Canadian Olympic & Para-swimming Trials in April, where she broke three records. She won the 100-metre freestyle in a Canadian record time of 53.31 seconds, which also broke the world junior record. She also won the 100-m butterfly in 56.99, making her the first Canadian woman to break the 57-second barrier in the event. Besides those two events, she qualified for the Olympics in the 200-m freestyle plus the 4×100-m and 4×200-m free relays.
Going into the Trials, Oleksiak would have been happy to make one of the relay teams.
“I would never have believed you if you said I was doing it in three individual events,” she said. “It’s just all a dream.”
At times over the last year, Oleksiak thought her hopes of competing at the Olympics were a pipe dream. Whenever she grew her swimming suffered.
“I remember having a really tough time,” she said. “I thought I was in a good spot, then I hit a growth spurt and all of a sudden I was in a huge mess.
“It was kind of frustrating but I got through it.”
For much of this period, Oleksiak was training with Bill O’Toole at the Toronto Swim Club. She saw Titley once or twice a week.
Titley said there was nothing to do but show patience and let nature runs its course. Oleksiak’s early morning workouts were reduced to allow her more rest.
“Let a young person grow and heal and develop,” he said.
“I think she’s done the vast majority of her growing. There’s not much north you can go from six-foot-one. I’d like it if she could get to six-foot-two or six-foot-three but I think that growth is probably going to take five years as opposed to growing six inches in two years.”
During the growth periods the coaches concentrate on improving Oleksiak’s speed in the butterfly instead of freestyle. That’s because she has a better control of her movement in fly.
“That’s one of the reasons why we didn’t swim the 50-free at Trials,” said Titley. “We didn’t think she’s physically capable yet to sprint freestyle as well as we’d like her to.”
Oleksiak’s swimming career almost ended before it started.
As a lanky youngster she attempted to join several swim clubs in Toronto, but was turned away because she had trouble swimming the length of the pool.
“Obviously I wasn’t the greatest,” Oleksiak said.
Eventually coach Gary Nolden at the Toronto Olympian Swim Team took her on and laid the foundation for Oleksiak to build from.
“The coach there really helped me,” said Oleksiak. “He had a lot of faith in me. If I hadn’t gone to that club, I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
As she progressed Oleksiak went on to train with O’Toole, where she caught Titley’s eye.
As exciting as a first Olympics is, Titley believes it is just a stepping stone for Oleksiak.
“We are just scratching the surface really,” he said.
Most female freestylers don’t hit their peak until they are in their mid-20s. For Oleksiak, that means she won’t reach her full potential until the 2024 Olympics.
“That’s where they develop their full strength and their awareness of everything,” Titley said. “We don’t even know where that Olympics is going to be held yet, but that’s where Penny physically will be at her peak.”
Besides gaining strength, Oleksiak will also learn race strategies and decide which strokes she wants to focus on.
“You are better to be great at one thing than OK at five things,” said Titley. “We will have a focus. We’ll see what events she naturally gravitates toward.”
Even though she is a rookie, Oleksiak has set a high bar for herself in Rio.
“I want to make a final and be trying for the podium, even though that sounds crazy right now,” she said.
Swimming at the 2016 Olympic Games will take place from August 6-13.