By Jim Morris
There was something a little different about Penny Oleksiak at the recent Olympic Swimming Trials, Presented by Bell.
It wasn’t just what Oleksiak did in the water. It was the smile she was flashing and the little bit of swagger she carried.
Oleksiak was a 16-year-old teenager when she grabbed a nation’s attention by winning four medals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, including gold in the 100-metre freestyle. Now, she’s a 21-year-old woman confident in herself and comfortable with the expectations placed on her heading into this month’s Tokyo Games.
“After Rio I had a really big high,” said Oleksiak. “It was super fun to swim, go to meets, be kind of known in the swim community. After that there was a lot of pressure behind my name and behind the 100-m free. It really wasn’t really enjoyable for me, no time was really good enough for me.
“Now I’m back in the mindset where I have confidence again. I’m excited to swim again. I love training now. Before I didn’t love training as much.”
Oleksiak won the 100 free at the trials in 52.89 seconds, her fastest time in the event since setting the Canadian and Olympic record of 52.70 in Rio. It was also the fourth-fastest women’s 100-m this year.
Later, on her Instagram account, Oleksiak posted “count me out again.”
“It just gave me a massive boost of confidence I’ve been searching for,” said Oleksiak. “To come (to the trials) not fully tapered and have that competitive edge again, and have those girls race against me and really just push me, gave me that confidence for Tokyo.”
Oleksiak also finished second in the 200-m freestyle behind teenager Summer McIntosh.
Ben Titley, Oleksiak’s coach at the High Performance Centre – Ontario, said it’s common for teenaged swimmers to get tossed about on waves of change.
“Most kids go through that in relative anonymity, just get on, make mistakes and no one cares. Someone like Penny had to go through that, not necessarily in the public eye, but certainly from her perspective with an expectation or weight on top of it.”
Besides the gold in Rio, Oleksiak won silver in the 100-m butterfly and two bronze as the anchor of the 4×100-m and 4×200-m freestyle relays.
Selected as Team Canada’s flag bearer for the Olympic closing ceremonies, Oleksiak went on to be named winner of the 2016 Lou Marsh Award, presented to Canada’s top athlete of the year, and Canadian Press Female Athlete of the Year. The previously unknown teenager received Twitter shoutouts from celebrities like Drake, was invited to throw out the first pitch for a Blue Jays game, speak at WE Day among myriad other opportunities.
What looked like a smooth road ahead turned bumpy as Oleksiak struggled to meet the high expectations produced by her Olympic performance.
She won a combined five bronze medals at the 2017 and 2019 FINA World Championships, all in relays. In 2018 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 the Olympics.
Except for a 100-m freestyle bronze at the 2016 FINA World Swimming Championships (25-m), Oleksiak has not stood on the podium in an individual event at a major international competition since Rio.
Oleksiak can’t change the past but can control her future.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last five years,” she said. “I’ve seen other swimmers and people I train with come and go. It’s really nice to have learned from them and put into action what I have been taught.
“It’s more natural for me than it was then. I was always following somebody and seeing what they were doing. Now it’s fun to talk to other girls and help the other swimmers out, just get everyone else as ready as I was then.”
Titley likes where Oleksiak is physically and mentally.
“She’s coming out the other side a more centred human being,” he said. “She’s started to figure out who she is and what makes her happy and take some more ownership.”
Proving how difficult the sport can be, Simone Manuel, who tied with Oleksiak for the gold in Rio, failed to advance to the finals of the 100-m free at the U.S. Olympic trials.
One big unknown for Oleksiak – and most Canadian swimmers – is the lack of recent racing opportunities since COVID-19 closed pools and cancelled meets.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us the rest of the world hasn’t had to face,” said Titley.
“Penny has the ability to swim best times. If her best times gets her in the mix for whatever it is she wants to get, then we’re in a good spot.”
There has been a lot of noise around Oleksiak since she burst onto the international stage five years ago. She heads to Tokyo happy to have found a quiet place.
“I think going into Tokyo I’ve really been focused on trying to get back into the mindset that I was in before Rio,” she said. “I was very chilled out, didn’t really have any expectations. I was just having fun and swimming.
“I think I’m back to that mindset now. It’s fun for me to out, get ready and race.”