‘Most Decorated’ Canadian Penny Oleksiak Relishes in Illustrious Second Chapter

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Penny Oleksiak (CAN) with her bronze medal during the medals ceremony for the women's 200m freestyle during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Penny Oleksiak with her bronze medal from the women's 200 free; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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‘Most Decorated’ Canadian Penny Oleksiak Relishes in Illustrious Second Chapter

Penny Oleksiak was barely out of the water when she heard those two words, ones she tried not to think about entering the Tokyo Olympics but which soon became unavoidable.

When uttered for the last time on deck at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, by women she calls not just training partners but dear friends, they rang out with no hint of pressure or foreboding, just unabashed joy.

Most. Decorated.

Oleksiak’s three medals at the Tokyo Olympics – bronze in the 200 freestyle, silver in the women’s 400 free relay and bronze in the medley relay – make her the most decorated Olympian in Canadian history, man or woman, summer or winter, at just 21 years old. She hasn’t just made history in the pool, going from the 16-year-old sensation of the Rio Games to a veteran stalwart in Tokyo. She’s won four medals as a wide-eyed girl, then three as a woman who’s dealt with injuries and expectations that few will ever be exposed to.

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Canada team members Kayla Sanchez, Margaret Macneil, Rebecca Smith and Penny Oleksiak with their silver medals during the medals ceremony for the women's 4x100m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

Canada’s 400 free relay of, from left, Penny Oleksiak, Rebecca Smith, Maggie MacNeil and Kayla Sanchez show off their silver medals; Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Network

The reward for her resilience is a medal haul unlike anything a Canadian has ever managed.

“I honestly wasn’t thinking about it coming into the Games,” Oleksiak said. “But once I got my sixth, there was a little bit of pressure on me I feel like to get that seventh medal. In my other two races, I was really thinking about it – get that seventh, get that seventh – and I got fourth in both which hurt a little bit. But then I was like, honestly on the last race, at this point, I accepted it. I have six Olympic medals and I’m not going to complain if I leave here with six Olympic medals. I’m more than happy.”

For all the medals, Oleksiak’s mindset might be the most exemplary aspect of her longevity. She arrived in Rio in 2016 a relative unknown and left as the first athlete – not swimmer, athlete – born after 2000 to win gold. She most famously won the women’s 100 free in a historic tie with Simone Manuel, and added silver in the 100 butterfly to a pair of relay bronzes.

In the intervening five years, Oleksiak has gone back and forth with her love of the sport, both with racing and training. She’s endured a back injury that kept her out of the water for several months last year, part of the struggles that come with standing 6-foot-1. Away from the pool, she’s gone through, “hell and back for the last two, three years,” issues that she hasn’t shared publicly (and declined to again at the end of the Games.)

“She’s a phenomenal young woman,” coach Ben Titley said. “She’s had more challenges than you will ever know about and probably shouldn’t. And she comes through and she delivers, and when she’s with her teammates like that, they lift each other up.”

Through all that, there was Oleksiak this week, exhorting people on social media not to feel sorry for her after missing a medal in the 100 free by .07 seconds, her second fourth-place finish of the Games to go with the 800 free relay. It’s the mindset of someone who has found a level of peace with a sport that has given her so much but also asked a lot.

From a physical perspective, her training group at the Toronto High Performance Centre has been pivotal. She’s got a built-in support system that includes, among others, the three relay teammates from the medley that she had her arms around in the mixed zone Sunday. Oleksiak said it eased the pressure on her knowing that given their talent – 100 fly gold medalist Maggie MacNeil, 100 back silver medalist Kylie Masse, gamer Sydney Pickrem in breaststroke – a medal of some color felt like it was basically in her back pocket.

“To come back and always have these girls motivate me in training and know that none of these girls are going to let up in training, so I have to keep up no matter what’s going on,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the support and the love I got from that group.”

The medals are racking up for the Canadians. Oleksiak’s sixth tied her for the most in Canadian Summer Olympic history, the seventh putting her out front alone. Masse’s three medals in Tokyo make four in her career. MacNeil checks in with three medals, one of each color, from her first Games. Oleksiak may be out in front of the pack, but she’s hardly alone, for what has become one of the top programs in the world.

That dynamic – of having teammates to help her achieve the milestones and cushion the blow of external pressure is so many little ways at and away from the pool – heightens not just Oleksiak’s enjoyment of the accolade. It illustrates just how special an achievement it is.

“When we take a step back and we realize what she’s accomplished is actually insane,” Masse said. “And the fact that we get to swim with her and we get to contribute to that is really, really special. It’s super cool and she’s a legend. We’re really happy for her.”

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