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Taking last summer off helped Penny Oleksiak refocus on her training

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By Jim Morris

Norman was curled up, sound asleep on Penny Oleksiak’s lap. The French Bulldog puppy looked relaxed and content.

Oleksiak stroked her puppy’s fur and broke into a smile when asked if Norman can swim.

“I don’t think he can,” she answered. “He’s too chubby and short.”

Cuddling the pup, Oleksiak also looked relaxed and happy. That hasn’t always been the case in the three years since the Toronto native burst onto the world stage by winning four medals, one of them gold, at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

“Now it feels like I’m finally taking big steps forward, which is always nice,” said Oleksiak.

As she prepares for this summer’s FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Oleksiak is back training with coach Ben Titley at the High Performance Centre – Ontario. She enjoys vibe at the centre and likes being in the water with other swimmers like Kayla Sanchez, Yuri Kisil and Kierra Smith.

“For the last year it’s been hard for me to enjoy training and want to get up and go the pool,” said Oleksiak. “It’s been fun to be (at the centre) and just have fun and be myself in training.

“It’s a very good atmosphere there.”

Oleksiak’s reinvestment in training showed when she won the 200-metre freestyle at 2019 Canadian Swimming Trials in a personal best time of one minute, 56.92 seconds. It was an exciting race with Oleksiak edging Taylor Ruck by just .05 of a second.

Titley said the better Oleksiak trains, the more confident she is on race day.

“I think it’s important for her to get back to enjoy racing at this stage,” he said. “Enjoyment, a lot of times, comes from knowing you’ve done everything to put yourself in the best possible place to achieve success. You stand behind the block; you are confident and relaxed and know it’s going to be a fun experience.”

Few people outside of swimming had heard of Oleksiak prior to the Rio Olympics. That all changed when the 16-year-old won a gold in the 100-m freestyle, a silver in the 100-m butterfly and was part of the bronze-medal winning 4×100 and 4×200-m freestyle relays.

Oleksiak was selected as the Canadian flag bearer at the Games’ closing ceremonies. Her performance resulted in her being named winner of the 2016 Lou Marsh Award – presented to Canada’s top athlete of the year – and the Canadian Press Female Athlete of the Year.

Over the next couple of years Oleksiak faced high expectations produced by her Olympic performance.

At the 2017 FINA World Championships she was part of the bronze-medal winning mixed 4×100-m freestyle and 4×100-m medley relay teams. Individually she was fourth in the 100-m butterfly and sixth in the 100-m freestyle.

At the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, Oleksiak won three silver relay medals and finished fourth in the 50-m and 100-m butterfly and fifth in the 100-m freestyle.

Last summer Oleksiak qualified for the Swimming Canada team heading to the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo but decided to withdraw from the competition. She made the decision, along with Swimming Canada’s high performance leadership team, believing a break would help her focus on training for next summer’s Olympics.

“It was the best thing I could have done last year,” said Oleksiak. “Missing that one meet wasn’t anything too big for me. It let me kind of be myself, go and have a summer, be a teenager. It was fun.”

The world championship trials meet had some mixed results for Oleksiak. Her win in the 200-m freestyle came about 24 hours after she finished third in the 100-m butterfly, which meant she is unlikely to race the event in Gwangju. She also finished behind Ruck in the 100-m freestyle.

Overall, Oleksiak was satisfied with her Trials performance but realizes there is more work to be done.

“There were specific moments and times where I wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be,” she said. “It all comes with training and consistency, being good in training all the time.

“I guess it was kind of a learning moment for me.”

The world championships will allow Oleksiak to test herself against some top international talent. The event will also be a preview of next year’s Olympics.

“I wouldn’t say I have any crazy expectations,” she said. “I’m just excited to be there and be on the team and just kind of see how it goes.”