Canada’s Penny Oleksiak Embracing Success Heading to Commonwealth Games

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Penny Oleksiak still felt like a normal 16-year-old when she left for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

She’d never even been on a senior national team, and was little known outside the Canadian swimming community. When she came back to Canada with four Olympic medals around her neck – an accomplishment no Canadian had ever achieved in a summer Games – she realized things would never be the same.

“It’s all kind of a blur still. I just remember it being one of the best experiences of my life so far. I haven’t had the longest life but it was amazing from what I remember,” she says with a laugh when asked to reflect on Rio during her preparations for the Gold Coast 2017 Commonwealth Games.

“I just remember having fun, biking around, joking around with my friends and getting to meet people from everywhere in the world. For some reason in the moment I wasn’t taking it in as ‘The Olympics.’ I was like, ‘Oh this is just another swim meet and there’s other sports here and I’m just kind of meeting people.’ But when I look back now that was crazy and such an amazing thing to experience at such a young age.

“It was pretty fun for me in the moment but then afterwards I was like, ‘Oh. Wow. I actually did that.’ ”

How do you go back to being a normal teenager after your face is all over national TV and magazine covers touting you as the world’s first Olympic champion born in the 2000s, and Canada’s youngest Olympic champion ever? How do you handle going from unknown to having more than 150,000 social media followers? How do you try to be a normal high school student when TV cameras are waiting for you on your first day back?

“Sometimes it was (too much) for me. Honestly I think I sometimes let stuff get to my head. I’d go on Twitter and see some people trying to poke at me and stuff, or something like that. But I have such an amazing support team in my parents and everyone around me who tries to help keep me in line and keep me grounded and keep my thoughts in place. I think overall I’m pretty good where I’m at with everything.”

That includes a 2017 performance that can be evaluated in different ways depending on your perspective. Oleksiak finished fourth in the 100-m butterfly and sixth in the 100-m freestyle at the FINA World Championships in Budapest. Her 100 free time of 52.94 was just off her Olympic, Canadian and world junior record time of 52.70 that tied Simone Manuel for gold in Rio. She was also part of two mixed relay bronze medals that set Canadian records, and capped her year with five relay golds at the FINA World Junior Championships in Indianapolis.

Had 2017 been her international debut, that sort of season as a 17-year-old would have been an unqualified success for a promising young swimmer. Cast in the light of the expectations 2016 may have created for some, it could have been perceived as a step backwards. On the other hand, when you consider everything Penny Oleksiak had to deal with after returning from Rio as “Penny Oleksiak,” it was in many ways incredible.

“2017 was pretty good,” Oleksiak says when asked to reflect on her follow-up to Rio. “I think it took me a little while to figure out everything after Rio, and figure out like I can’t drop my swimming schedule for media or anything. I need to stay on my swimming schedule and my training schedule, but this year I’ve figured that out more and learned to get myself in line with everything and work around my schedule more.”

That said, she doesn’t take for granted all the opportunities the fame associated with her performance has brought.

“I’m very, very grateful for my life after Rio because I got to experience so many things that I would never have experienced in my life. I got to go on a trip to Kenya with my family to help with WE (children’s charity). I got to experience people coming together to celebrate the accomplishments of many Olympians including myself. I got to go to fun things like Raptors games and stuff like that. It’s so crazy to think about those experiences and how if I hadn’t done what I’d done in Rio I would have never got to experience those things,” she says.

After two years with Ben Titley at Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre – Ontario, Oleksiak returned to her roots at the Toronto Swim Club with her childhood coach Bill O’Toole for 2017-18. She’s surrounded by younger swimmers and focused on enjoying what she’s doing.

“My goals this year are mainly just to be happy and have fun,” she says. “The last two years were pretty hectic after the Olympics, so this year was just more of a chill-out year and just being able to live my life and do what I want to do. Training-wise I’ve just been trying to get a lot stronger and I think that’s where I’m at now. I’m a lot bigger than I was just because of all the muscle mass I’ve gained but also just trying to get stronger in the pool and fix tiny technique things.”

Oleksiak has said many times she didn’t want anything to change after her performance in Rio. As she nears her 18th birthday in June, she realizes change is inevitable and starts to look back with some perspective.

“I feel like (Rio) was yesterday, but when I look at photos and everything I’m like, ‘I was a baby.’ I look so young,” she says with a laugh. “It feels like it was yesterday when I think about it but when I see photos or videos I’m like, ‘Whoa, I’m so different now.

“Sometimes I forget about it because I try to just be a typical teen and just live my life how any other kid would. But sometimes walking down the street people will be staring at me and my friend will be like ‘Why are these people staring at you?’ And I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know… oh wait, yeah I do.’

“It’s not hard to believe (what I’ve accomplished) like in my training sense and my swimming sense, but in my just normal life sense I’m like, ‘Is that me?’ It’s weird.”

— Press release courtesy of Swimming Canada.