With Penny Oleksiak Anchoring, Canada Delivers Relay Silver to Swear By

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Kayla Sanchez, Margaret Macneil and Rebecca Smith (CAN) celebrate after placing second during the women's 4x100m freestyle relay final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Network
The first three members of the Canadian women's 400 free relay, from left, Rebecca Smith, Kayla Sanchez and Maggie MacNeil; Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Network

With Penny Oleksiak Anchoring, Canada Delivers Relay Silver You Can Swear By

With silver medals around their necks, the Canadian women’s 400 free relay team was all smiles, giggles and hugs Sunday afternoon in Tokyo.

And before the race, for a swimming program renowned for its collegial nature?

“There’s a lot of swearing before the race,” Penny Oleksiak volunteered.

Whatever expletives Oleksiak used to fire herself up – to let’s, uh, something, go – worked like a charm. While there was no catching Australia in its world-record domination, Oleksiak made Canada the best of the rest with a split of 52.26 to roar back into second.

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 medal marks the best finish for a Canadian women’s relay after five bronzes (including two in Rio five years ago). It’s also Canada’s first medal of the Tokyo Olympics in any sport. Canada clocked in at 3:32.78, .03 ahead of the U.S and nearly a second clear of the Netherlands (3:33.70).

Oleksiak finished it off, again in a race against Simone Manuel. The two young stars of the Rio Games, who tied for gold in the 100 free, found themselves in adjacent lanes, staring each other down on the run into to the finish. Manuel split 52.96, one of four changes for the U.S. from prelims to rally for bronze. But it wasn’t enough to prevent Oleksiak surging by her.

“You saw us both on the rope that last 25 meters,” Oleksiak said. “I kind of knew I had to touch second. I didn’t really have a choice at the point.”

The Canadians each did their jobs. Kayla Sanchez set a second personal best in as many days off the front in 53.42, which put the Canadians fifth. Maggie MacNeil, subbed in for Taylor Ruck after making the final of the 100 fly earlier in the session, went 53.47.

“I have known from experience that usually my second swim is better, because I’m kind of beaten up already,” MacNeil said. “I was really looking forward to that, and just having these girls with me definitely gave me the extra boost of momentum I needed to get silver.”

Rebecca Smith turned in a rock solid third leg of 53.63 to hand off to Oleksiak. The older, more mature sprinter delivered a memorable final leg. She was at .09 on her reaction time, pushing the limit of legality. But she closed a gap to Manuel with a big first 50, then battled her all the way down the stretch.

It’s the fifth Olympic medal of Oleksiak’s storied but still young career, a realization that catches her by surprise.

“It’s pretty crazy to think about,” she said. “I honestly kind of forgot I have four others in the bank, I guess. Excited to bring this one home, hopefully we can get a few more going and see what we can do.”

The excitement was heightened by how long this group has known one another. The Canadian program is legendarily tight-knit. The links stretch back more than a decade, through top clubs and the high-performance system.

Those bonds are strong enough to hang a silver medal on.

“I have a lot of faith in these people,” Sanchez said. “If you want someone to anchor, it’s Penny. If you want someone to do a second swim, it’s Maggie. And Rebecca is just a great trainer, very consistent. We just needed to do what we needed to do, and we came out with a silver medal. It was sick.”