Penny Oleksiak is doing all the things you’re not supposed to do on a swimming pool deck—running, sideways skipping, performing some kind of flapper-style dance in which she choppily scissors her legs back and forth. She breaks into these moves spontaneously and for the benefit of her coaches and teammates, a group which has assembled at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre for a media event a couple of weeks ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games. The youngest on the team at 16 years and 40-odd days (fellow 4×100-metre freestyle relay swimmer Taylor Ruck is older by less than a month), Oleksiak is known as the “child” among Canada’s Rio contingent. And despite her height (at six-foot-one, she is the tallest woman on the team, and is taller, too, than several staff members), she does indeed seem like the baby in the family, making faces behind photographers as other swimmers pose for pictures and deking in and out of others people’s conversations in between stints of her running-skipping-dancing routine.
But that’s on deck. In the water, it’s a different story, as Oleksiak made clear on the first official day of Olympic competition, when she posted the third-fastest time—56.73—in the preliminary 100-metre butterfly heats, topping her own national and world junior record of 56.99, which she had set at Olympic trials in April. Later that day, Oleksiak qualified for the final with the fifth-best time in the semi, and then anchored her team to a bronze medal in the 4×100 relay, Canada’s first medal in the event in 40 years and first women’s medal in swimming in 20 years. And there’s every reason to think she might capture a second in Sunday night’s 100-metre fly final.
But maybe let’s don’t tell her that. Maybe let’s say, ‘Nah, you probably can’t.’ That’s what three or four swim clubs told Oleksiak when she was 10. (To be fair, they were probably right; Oleksiak quit swimming lessons early, after accidentally getting kicked in the eye.) Which may have been for the best. “I think people telling me I wasn’t good enough kind of made me motivated. I wanted to show people that I could do it. I tried to learn from what they told me.” Thus did Oleksiak figure out how to do the front crawl. Finally a coach named Gary Nolden at a swimming club in Midland, Ont., picked her up.
Oleksiak was born into an athletic family. Her older brother Jamie plays for the Dallas Stars; her older sister Hayley rows for Northeastern University in Boston. (She has two other older siblings, both of whom live in Charlotte, N.C.) Before becoming a swimmer, Oleksiak competed in gymnastics. She gave it up because “I was growing a lot.” She figures she’s still growing. Last year she was five-foot-10, three inches shorter than today. “I really don’t think I’m going to stop.”
It’s clear that Penny Oleksiak is still learning how to manage all that growth, what to do with her shoulders, how to adjust her stride. She moves something like a young horse, and that’s in no small part down to her playfulness. She is, in many ways, a typical teenager. She spends as much time as she can with her friends; she likes to eat pizza and chips. At Olympic trials in April, she swam the preliminary 100-metre race at 3 p.m., went shopping with her friends at the Eaton Centre (“my coach is going to kill me,” she says after disclosing this), had a half-hour nap, came back to the pool for the 100-metre final at 9 p.m., and set a new national (and world junior) record, at 53.31.
She’s trying to be develop new, more “grown-up,” habits. Since September, she’s been training with three other sprinters—Team Canada’s Sandrine Manville, Chantal van Landeghem, and Michelle Williams—and they have taught her a lot. They’re the ones who started calling her “child,” and she clearly relishes their mentorship. For the 4×100-metre freestyle relay final, Oleksiak was subbed in for Williams after Williams helped the team qualify earlier that day. Only the four who swam the final stood on the podium, but when Williams joined the group for a post-race interview, Oleksiak put her medal around Williams’s neck, fussing with it until it sat just right.
Oleksiak had no thought that she’d qualify for so many events in Rio. (In addition to the 100-metre fly and 4×100, she will swim in the 100-metre freestyle, the 200-metre free, the 4×200-metre freestyle relay and the 4×100 individual medley). “A week out, I was hoping for, like, the relay,” she says. She is still surprising herself and her audience, coming from behind in both the 100-metre fly prelims and semi to finish strong. And she’s still getting used to being “professional.” What does this mean to her? “Napping between prelims and final,” she says. “Not eating a pack of cookie dough before a race. I did that in Montreal one time.”
And how did that turn out? “It went pretty well.”