Penny Oleksiak Named Canada’s Top Athlete, Wins Lou Marsh Trophy

Photo Courtesy: Chris Reith/Swimming Canada

By David Rieder.

Penny Oleksiak is 16 years old, a high school student and an Olympic gold medalist, having tied for first in the women’s 100 free final this past summer in Rio. And for 2016, she was named the best athlete in Canada.

On Tuesday, she was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy, which honors the top Canadian athlete in any sport, professional or amateur. Oleksiak beat out six other finalists, including Olympic sprinter Andre De Grasse, who won three medals in Rio, and NHL star Sidney Crosby, who led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup this summer—and has long been one of Oleksiak’s sports heroes.

“I’ve always looked up to Sidney Crosby. I remember at book fairs I used to buy photos of him,” she said.

In hockey-crazy Canada, a swimmer beating out an NHL legend coming off one of the signature performances of his career for an all-sport award means this teenager must have done something extraordinary this year. After all, no swimmer had won the award since Mark Tewksbury in 1992, and no female swimmer had been honored since Elaine Tanner in 1966.

Safe to say that Oleksiak did just that.

Before qualifying for her first Olympic team in April, the biggest meet at which Oleksiak had ever swum was the 2015 World Junior Championships in Singapore. But when thrown into the pressure-cooker of the Olympic Games, Oleksiak immediately rose to the challenge.

On day one, she was tasked with anchoring Canada’s 400 free relay in the Olympic final. She had sat out qualifying, when her teammates earned lane three to put the squad in position to earn Canada’s first women’s swimming medal in two decades.

Oleksiak entered the water in third place and promptly split 52.72, pulling away from Sweden and fending off the Netherlands to lock up the bronze medal. The next night, she won her first individual medal, finishing second behind Sarah Sjostrom and touching in 56.46, good for a new Canadian and World Junior record.

Three days later, Oleksiak anchored Canada’s 800 free relay squad to yet another bronze. With the 100 free final coming up a day later, and Oleksiak had earned lane five for that occasion.

No Canadian Summer Olympian had ever won four medals in a single Games. All of the sudden, the expectations had been altered. Oleksiak knew it, and so did Ben Titley, the head coach for Canada’s Olympic swim team and also Oleksiak’s personal coach.

“To get the first three medals probably changed what we thought was possible for the 100 free,” Titley said. “She knew from the semifinals that she was able to compete the world record-holder, Cate Campbell, and she had closed her down in the last 25 meters of that race. I think she knew she had what it took to be competitive, and once you know that, then it’s all about executing your race on that day, and that’s something she did really well.”

What stands out to Titley is not the means by which Oleksiak won gold—coming from seemingly out of nowhere the last 15 meters to tie with Simone Manuel at the finish. It’s her reaction in the immediate aftermath.

“Penny doesn’t actually turn around and look at the scoreboard to see what the result is,” Titley explained. “That’s something I’ve never seen by any athlete that I’ve coached over the past 20 years, being okay with what you’ve done, being content with the fact that you gave 100% effort, and the result, to a certain extent, is immaterial to that effort. That’s something I haven’t seen in any senior athletes, let alone a 16-year-old.”

Oleksiak echoed her coach, explaining that “as long as I know I put 100% into the race, I tell myself that whatever result is on the board behind me, I’m going to be happy.”

Oleksiak again represented Canada this past week at a home Short Course World Championships in Windsor. A crowd favorite the entire meet, Oleksiak picked up a bronze in the 100 free and helped her country win gold in both the 200 and 800 free relays, narrowly missing the world record in the longer distance.

“I don’t think any of us had super high expectations going into Windsor. I think we were all just a little out of our element being short course,” she said. “[The meet] was super fun. Being able to close it out with two gold medals, both on relays, it was pretty amazing.”

But despite all of the medals and honors, what Oleksiak insists that she’s most proud of happened even before she left for Brazil.

“I think I’m most proud of the training I did last year,” she said. “I did a lot of really, really hard training, whether it was at the pool or being at CrossFit, even at school—I even tried to get in some good work here. I’m proud of how hard I worked last year and all the people that helped push me, I’m really, really grateful for them.”

Oleksiak didn’t learn that she had won the prestigious Trophy in some grand, Heisman-esque ceremony. No, she was doing what any other teenager might have been on any normal Tuesday: sitting in class, law class specifically.

“I told my teacher when I walked into class that I would be on my phone during class and that I was watching out for something on Twitter,” Oleksiak said. Under the circumstances, the teacher was understanding, but “she called me out a couple of times to search something on Google.”

And how will she celebrate the award tonight? Oleksiak responded just like any 16-year-old might.

“I have a test tomorrow. I need to study!” she said.

“I’f I’m lucky, I’ll get some cake at dinner. Hopefully.”

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Tony and
Tony and
7 years ago

A truly inspirational person!

7 years ago

Everything came together at right moment: exceptional talent, hard work, powerful performance and we must say a great deal of luck. With times she showed in Rio she could be easily out of podium in her individual races. Campbell sisters’ disaster and below expectations performance of American flyers left the door wide open. Penny Oleksiak hasn’t missed the opportunity. Kudos.

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