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Adapting to fame, dealing with injury, part of Olympic champion Penny Oleksiak’s learning curve

This preview article for the 17th FINA World Championships is powered by Canada’s Dairy Farmers’ Fuelling Women’s Champions, a movement dedicated to recognizing and empowering our country’s female athletes.

By Jim Morris

She’s thrown out the opening pitch at a Blue Jays game, been given the keys to her home city of Toronto, and been named the country’s top female athlete.

Even rapper Drake has found time to give Penny Oleksiak a shout-out on his Instagram page.

Winning four Olympic medals, including a gold in the 100-metre freestyle, can bring you that kind of attention. Pretty heady stuff for anyone, but especially a 16-year-old.

“It’s been a little bit crazy,” Oleksiak admitted while reflecting on the last year. “Media and everything is a little bit different.

“It’s been really fun for me because I can pick and choose stuff. If I don’t want to do something, then I’m not going to do it. I’m just trying to be happy and do stuff I want to do.”

When Oleksiak left for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games last summer few people outside of Canadian swimming knew who she was. Looking forward to this year’s FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, she will be one of the swimmers to beat.

Oleksiak, who trains at the High Performance Centre – Ontario, shrugs off any suggestion she might be weighed down by a target on her back.

“I try not to think about other people and their perception of me when I swim,” she said. “I just try to focus in on myself and what I can do to make my own race better.”

Helping Oleksiak balance the demands of expectations with the reality of being a teenager is a support system of family and friends. Her coach Ben Titley said people shouldn’t forget Oleksiak is at the beginning of her journey.

“She is still a young woman. As long as people understand that,” said Titley.

“Think back to when you were 16 and your body changed or your outlook on life changed or your perception of friends changed or what was important to you changed. She’s going through all that now. The challenge for her is she has to go through it in a very public manner.”

Something smart people realize is they never quit learning. Oleksiak is honest in saying she is still learning how to race.

“It’s just learning little things to better my time and better my races,” she said. “I think I have a long way to go with that.

“I haven’t really perfected that yet. I think I have time to work on it.”

Besides working hard in the pool, Oleksiak also studies other swimmers. One of those she likes to watch is Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, an Olympic and world champion.

“She’s such an amazing swimmer and super-fast,” said Oleksiak, speaking like a high-school student talking about a new cell phone. “She does a lot of things perfectly in her race.”

While the adulation flowed in over the winter, Oleksiak was battling her way through injuries that affected her training. She dealt with a shoulder issue then suffered a concussion when hit by a medicine ball at the gym.

“It was a like a mess up, thrown at the wrong time,” Oleksiak said meekly.

She continued to work through the injuries but her training wasn’t anywhere near what she wanted heading into the Team Canada Trials in April.

“I’m just proud she was able to (go to the trials) and execute the races and still win the events that we wanted her to win to compete in this summer,” Titley said.

Oleksiak qualified for the world championships by winning the 100-m freestyle and 100-m butterfly.

“Coming into the meet I wasn’t really nervous,” she said. “My only goal was to make the team. I just had to tick that box and I did that.”

One of the challenges Oleksiak dealt with prior to the Olympics was adapting to a six-foot-one body that had grown over an inch in one year. There were days when her body didn’t seem connected to her brain.

“I think I’m done growing,” Oleksiak said. “I’m definitely more comfortable in (my body) now than I was last year when I was trying to figure stuff out.”

John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s Director, High Performance, said the benefit of training at the High Performance Centre – Ontario, extends beyond the pool.

“With all the swimmers who come into the high performance centre network, they all nurture and develop their athletes with individualized training programs in a world-class environment,” he said.

“We have a group of people working together to make sure the focus continues to be on the things that made her great.”

Titley expects there will be some slight detours as Oleksiak travels the path of her career.

“It’s all a process, it’s all part of a journey,” he said. “It’s certainly not going to be a linear progression, just because we have to navigate through those teenager years that for any female is never a linear process.

“She seems to handle most things certainly better than any other 16-year-old I know.”

Oleksiak accepts the future is beyond her control, so is focused on her performance at this summer’s world championship.

“Just going and knowing I raced by fastest and tried my best,” she said. “That’s all I can really ask for.”