Following whirlwind Rio performance, Penny Oleksiak ready to thrive on own terms in Tokyo


Penny Oleksiak strides confidently across the deck at Toronto’s Pan Am Sports Centre. She flashes a quick smile as she walks, seemingly free from the burdens of past triumphs and failures, and happy to simply be back in the moment again. 

Canada’s breakout star at the Rio Olympics finished second Sunday in the 200-metre freestyle at Swim Canada’s 2021 trials — a final opportunity for competitors to lock up coveted spots to compete in Tokyo next month.

“I have really been focusing on getting back into the mindset I was in before Rio,” Oleksiak said, pool water still dripping from her six-foot-one frame.

“[Back then] I was very chilled out, didn’t really have any expectations and was just having fun with swimming, and I think I’m honestly back in that mindset now.”

WATCH | McIntosh beats Oleksiak in 200-metre final:

14-year-old Summer McIntosh broke her own Canadian age group record for 13-14 year-olds with a time of 1:56.19 in the women’s 200-metre freestyle event at the Canadian Olympic Swimming Trials. 11:30

Even before this race, Oleksiak was already bound for the Olympics, having been pre-selected. But every time she gets in the pool, it’s another step forward in what has become a long, personal journey of discovery. 

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Five years have passed since the then-16-year-old Toronto native burst onto the sporting scene and into the country’s consciousness. Unless you followed the world of swimming, you likely had never heard of Oleksiak before Rio 2016.

That’s where she won four medals — the most ever by a Canadian at a Summer Games — to become the nation’s youngest Olympic champion and the flag-bearer at the closing ceremony.

At first, Oleksiak soaked in the adulation that followed.

Companies clamoured for endorsements. There were countless appearances. Courtside seats for Raptors games. Even Twitter interactions with Drake.

But the transition from unknown swimmer to celebrity quickly became too much.

“I knew right after the Olympics that pressure was going to come, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to hit,” Oleksiak told CBC in May.

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 )

She needed to make adjustments, says John Atkinson, Swim Canada’s director of high performance. After all, he said, “When you are 15, 16 years old, going into an Olympic year and you’re a relative unknown, you come in without any expectations except those that you put on yourself.”

In 2017, Oleksiak suffered a concussion while training, in addition to dealing with a persistent shoulder injury. As a result, she failed to reach the podium in any individual event.

I was in the mindset of you have to win, and if you don’t you’ve lost, you’re a loser and you are never going to be good again.– Penny Oleksiak

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she again failed to win an individual medal. She then skipped the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships before doing something she hadn’t done in a long time — take a break.

In the years following Rio, Oleksiak says she quickly found that life at the top of the swimming world was hard. The pressure was constant and, at times, unbearable.

“I was expected to win every race. It felt like people were really watching me, and I always had to be the best, and no matter what I did it wasn’t good enough for myself, and I thought it wasn’t good enough for other people,” Oleksiak said in May. 

WATCH | Penny Oleksiak: The pressure of swimming as a champion:

Penny Oleksiak dominated the Rio Olympics in 2016 as a teenager, but dealing with the pressure that followed took its toll. She talks to Adrienne Arsenault about handling the stress and preparing for an Olympic comeback. 8:06

“I was in the mindset of you have to win, and if you don’t you’ve lost, you’re a loser and you are never going to be good again.”

She came back from her break refreshed and re-energized. Spending much of 2019 competing in the inaugural International Swimming League, where her team captured the title.

Heading into 2020, Oleksiak turned her attention to preparing for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo before the pandemic put the world on pause.

“Last year, when [COVID-19] started, I was pretty nervous about the Olympics,” Oleksiak told Reuters in March. “But I kind of came to terms with the fact that [the postponement] would give me another year to prepare, so I was really excited for that and I have really been focusing on perfecting what I can.”

Oleksiak says the pandemic has allowed her to focus on her life beyond the pool. She is 21 now, no longer the fresh-faced teenager Canadians met in Rio.

During the pandemic, Oleksiak has moved in with her boyfriend and her best friend doing things “we never had time to do” like enjoying good food.

WATCH | Pandemic may be biggest challenge between Canadian swimmers and Olympic podium:

Canada is in a golden age of swimming with multiple medal contenders heading to Tokyo. But the pandemic may be the biggest challenge between them and the podium. 11:18

“I feel good. I have finally come out the other end of stressing about everything, stressing about the Olympics.”

Atkinson says Oleksiak “has found her feet” and appears ready to thrive in Tokyo.

“I think there’s been a long journey. I think she’s in a very good spot.”

Oleksiak says the Canadian team has worked tirelessly through the past year, preparing to compete against the world’s best.

“Nobody knows what to expect of us. But hopefully they are impressed by what we do this summer.”

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