Swimming World’s Newcomer of the Year: Penny Oleksiak

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Photo Courtesy: Swimming Canada/Kevin Jarrold

Penny Oleksiak did not participate at the 2015 World Championships. Just 15 years old at the time, her big meet for that summer came a month later, at the Junior World Championships in Singapore.

So she was making her senior-level international debut when she swam at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Needless to say, that went rather well.

On day one of the swimming competition in Rio, Oleksiak and Team Canada earned the bronze in the 400 free relay, making Oleksiak and fellow 16-year-old Canadian Taylor Ruck the first Olympic medalists to have been born in the year 2000 or later.

Five days later, she tied with Simone Manuel for gold in the 100 free and became the first 21st century-born Olympic champion.

She followed that up with an appearance at the Short Course World Championships in Windsor earlier this month—ironically, her first appearance at a FINA World Championships. While there, she picked up four medals, including gold in both the 200 and 800 free relays.

The accolades have kept on coming for Oleksiak, who was honored two weeks ago with the Lou Marsh Trophy, given annually to the top athlete in any sport in the country. She’s the first female swimmer in a half-century to win that honor.

But as Oleksiak reminded the world on a conference call that day, she’s still in high school. As she grows up, her swimming career figures to continue to blossom.

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Read more about Oleksiak from the day she was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy:

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.”

7 comments

  1. avatar
    YY

    True, Penny Oleksiak made impressive improvements of her personal bests this summer. Unexpectedly impressive. But as she noted herself she was lucky in Rio. Gold medal at 52.7 was a great gift and two Americans flyers were well below expectations. Would she receive same level of attention should she score with the same times no medals?
    Her relay splits were very surprising by themselves: 52.7 but with the 27.47 last 50. She was under 27 on the way home racing individually. Her promising 1:54.9 split at 200 was done with the 59.9 for the last hundred.
    I hope all these inconsistencies can be attributed to her inexperience and are indications of unrealized potentials that makes her along with Katie Ledecky the most interesting swimmers to follow.

    • avatar

      Same kind of thing happened with Penny at the short course world championship too. Her bronze medal time in the 100m freestyle was 52.01. That’s very impressive for a 16-year-old in a course that heavily favours older swimmers, and it’s the first officially established world junior record in that event, but her freestyle split in the 4x100m medley relay was 51.07. She admitted in an interview after the individual race that she made some mistakes, and that she still needs to work on skills. Imagine what she’ll be like when she’s ironed out those skills in addition to strengthening her body.

      • avatar
        Swimmer

        How is 52.7 in the 100 free a “great gift”? It was an Olympic Record… I don’t think that’s sheer luck or merely just a “gift”. It always takes trolls on the internet to bring others down when someone else has accomplished something that they will never come close to achieving.

      • avatar
        YY

        @Swimmer:
        If in July having
        Cate Campbell – 52.06
        Bronte Campbell – 52.58
        Sarah Sjostrom – 52.78
        Emma McKeon – 52.80 (the example how hot it was)
        Kromowidjojo – 53.1
        If you predicted that 52.7 will be enough to win at Olympic final then I take my hat off. I didn’t predicted that and therefore am talking about Oleksjak’s and Manuel’s good luck, that technically speaking is the gift from above 🙂

  2. avatar
    Neil Jones

    That is why you have to ‘play the game’…’show up on race day’…whatever. While some are able to put up a world record performance the reality is it’s extremely difficult to do so on race day in the most difficult of competition circumstances. ..namely the 5 ring circus. Many swim fast but not necessarily their best all time. 52.7 is the fastest ever achieved in an Olympics. ..it’s not right close but not way off the world record. Many other excellent swims were not quite world record pace. ..even with world record holders in the field (Ruta, Missy etc). If you medaled on the day you were damn good and deserved it (unless ‘aided’ of course), if you didn’t then you were either under prepared, over prepared, sick,… too bad but oh well.

    • avatar
      YY

      In a very short time nobody will remember the circumstances of final race and history books will keep names of winners only. I don’t question Oleksiak’s gold medal as I don’t do it about Hosszu’s gold medals in fly and backstroke or surprising win by Maya DiRado who was actually 2sec slower than the champion in London. They all are Olympic Champs.
      Unless the win is done with the time that is better than the personal bests of your competitors it is like in game sports all about your opponent’s mistakes – strategic, tactical, technical or just bad physical conditions.
      Just don’t overestimate Oleksiak’s success in Rio taking in account a medal count only. She made a substantial improvement this season, but she is still far away from such Grands like Cate Campbell, Sarah Sjostrom or Katie Ledecky. Her strategically poorly executed relays may indicate that she still has a lot to learn.
      I wish her to have coaching and training environment that are matching the level of her talent. I wish her to stay free of injuries and I wish her to surprise us with new impressive achievements next year. Happy New Year, Penny.