Penny Oleksiak: A Canadian Swimming Icon

By: Amy Lu

Stephen McCarthy/Getty Images

Penny Oleksiak is a name that many will recognize as the Olympic swimmer who captured a gold medal at the astounding age of 16. Not only was it her first time participating in the Olympics, but she also broke a plethora of personal, national, and world swimming records. Oleksiak is the youngest Canadian to become an Olympic champion and holds the second-most medals in Canada from a single Olympic game.

So what happened after?

Oleksiak was only 16 when she shook the world with her feats, meaning that her career has only just begun. Now that the 2020 Olympic games are here, she’s back to compete, but also to share her story of the journey she’s taken to get here.

Early Career

Penny Oleksiak, right, with Toronto Swim Club coach Bill O’Toole, left. O’Toole has coached Penny since she was 13, and still occasionally coaches her. Uploaded by: Sachgau, Oliver

Born June 13, 2020, Penny Oleksiak grew up in Toronto from a family of 7 who all led commendable athletic lives. With encouragement from her father, Oleksiak entered the swimming scene at 9. Although rejected from many swimming clubs, coach Gary Nolden ended up accepting her at the Toronto Olympian Swim Team. In that same year, Oleksiak caught the attention of Ben Titley (who later led the Canadian Olympic team) at a race at the University of Toronto.

Oleksiak then went on to participate in several championships at levels up to national and global, going to show the talents of the rising young athlete. She won several medals on her journey to the top, including no short amount of gold, silver, and bronze. Alongside these fantastic accomplishments, Oleksiak had already beaten many records, both personal and global. By then, competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio had become a very likely reality – a no-brainer, if you will. At these Olympics, she only continued to break out of her shell by topping even more records.

Rio 2016 Summer Olympics

Oleksiak holds onto a baseball, while showing off her four medals from Rio, before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game in 2016.  (Peter Power/The Canadian Press)

While Canada did not come on top for medals during the 2016 Summer Olympics, it was a memorable experience for the then 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak. She competed in 5 races: the 100m women’s butterfly, the 100m women’s freestyle, the 4x100m women’s freestyle relay, the 4x200m women’s freestyle relay, and the 4x100m women’s medley relay. These races resulted in her receiving silver, gold, bronze, bronze, and 5th, respectively. In addition to her first-place finish in the 100 m women’s freestyle, Oleksiak set a new Olympic record and became Canada’s first Olympic swimming champion since Barcelona 1992.

The result of this was that Oleksiak became the first Canadian athlete to win four medals in a single summer game, tying with Victor Davis as Canada’s most decorated Olympic swimmer of all time. For the final bow on the package, Penny is Canada’s youngest Olympic gold medallist ever. 

All these achievements resulted in Oleksiak being chosen as Team Canada’s flag bearer at the Olympic closing ceremony, as well as receiving the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s Athlete of the Year and the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as the CP Female Athlete of the Year. Way to go, girl!

After Her Success

Penny Oleksiak competes in a women’s 100-meter butterfly heat during the swimming competitions of the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, July 23, 2017. (Darko Bandic/AP)

Between the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Penny Oleksiak continued to swim and compete in more championships, but not without her fair share of setbacks.

In 2017, Oleksiak was held back by injuries, including a concussion from a medicine ball accident at the gym. Despite this, she managed to qualify for the 2017 World Aquatics Championships. While she may have missed her personal goals by achieving two bronze medals, she was instrumental in helping her team win all five gold finishes in the relay events at the World Junior Swimming Championships in Indianapolis.

In the year 2018, Oleksiak took a break from August to September, saying that, “There was a lot of pressure behind my name. It wasn’t really enjoyable for me, and no time was ever really good enough for me,” as a result of her early success at Rio 2016. Of course, being a world-class athlete is an incredibly stressful job, so we applaud her for listening to her mind and taking a break to recuperate! We’ve seen a further example of this with Simone Biles in the ongoing Olympic Games, and it’s quite refreshing to witness.

In 2019, Oleksiak competed in the FINA World Championships and won three bronze medals from the women’s 4x100m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle, and 4x100m medley relay. But when things seemed to be going strong, the threat of COVID-19 appeared in 2020, and all training and competitions came to a halt. However, Penny Oleksiak (being the champion that she is) didn’t waste any of this time away from the pool by reconsidering her approach to training and mindset, which ultimately led to her heightened enjoyment in the sport.

Newfound Pressure

From BlogTO

Naturally, winning a gold medal at your first Olympics AND at the young age of 16 would generate loads of media coverage and praise. While the excessive attention may feel good in the moment, you realize later on that heavy expectations also come alongside the cheer and applause.

As she explains in numerous interviews and stories, Penny Oleksiak’s gold medal win greatly affected her future performance. Regarding the weight of the win, in an interview with CBC, she says, “After 2016 there was a lot of pressure on every meet I went to. I was expected to win every race I did.” She felt like her performance was constantly being watched, that her results were monitored and judged by others around the clock. This eventually led to her taking a month-long mental break in 2018, as we went over earlier.

One thing that immensely helped her destress was talking to fellow athlete Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu is a Canadian tennis player and was highest ranked No. 4 in the world and is the highest ranked Canadian in the history of the Women’s Tennis Association. Oleksiak and Andreescu quickly became close friends due to their relatability on many topics, including the pressure to perform well and win consistently. In addition, these two would share their worries and help each other through bad times. This just proves how vital a good friend is to maintain your mental health!

Thanks to her self-care, Penny has been able to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as her best self, and us Canadians are proud to see her shining!

If you are someone who is struggling with mental health, you are not alone. Reach out to your friends, family, or trusted adults for help. Ontario offers free Online Mental Health Support to every resident. We are willing to listen.

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