As Penny Oleksiak graces the Rogers radio building in Toronto on Friday, she is accompanied not just by a coach from Swimming Canada, but also, just as importantly, by two friends in matching slippers. Their names are Sarah Nolan and Asia Reid, aged 16 and 15 respectively, and they hold the unspoken responsibility of keeping Oleksiak grounded.
“Sarah likes multigrain bagels with margarine,” Oleksiak explains in a sound check, while testing the audio levels in a video shoot for Maclean’s, in which she took the 60-second challenge. Sarah corrects her: “I’m honestly moving to cream cheese now.” Oleksiak’s parents aren’t with her, nor are her four siblings, giving the 16-year-old the independence that any teenager craves. The friends tease Oleksiak when she answers questions about Instagram and favourite restaurants. “Just watch Penny post a photo saying, ‘Come for a date with Sarah Nolan at David’s Tea on Queen Street West,” jokes one. The girls are less entourage, more peanut gallery.
Successful athletes are vulnerable to the toxicity of fame. The Ryan Lochte fiasco reminded the world what happens when sporting celebrities come to feel untouchable (the swimmer got drunk and trashed a convenience store in Rio, then lied about being robbed). Oleksiak, now a quadruple Olympic medallist and the chosen torchbearer for the closing ceremonies, could find herself millions of dollars in endorsements. Yet, she has thus far accepted no sponsors or gifts, which would make her ineligible to swim competitively in university. She did, however, get to host her own one-hour radio show on Kiss 92.5 on Friday, broadcasting her favourite songs. “I got really excited when talking about ‘Gold Digger,’” she says of the song by Kanye West.
Oleksiak is young, but not reckless. Her head is groomed, with curled lashes, streamlined eyebrows and studded earrings, which are too tempting not to play with. Most critically, her head is on her shoulders. “My friends around me and family are trying to keep me grounded,” says Oleksiak. “I’m going to try my best, too.” When the swimmer returns to school for Grade 11 next month, Nolan predicts, “there are some Grade 9s who haven’t met her before who’ll be like, [‘Whoa!’], but mostly it’ll be the exact same.”
Her answers in the 60-second challenge emphasize nothing but normalcy. First question: What’s her current state of mind? “Right now I’m just chilling out, trying to live my normal life.” She likes Tim Horton’s doughnuts and Starbucks frappucinos. Her favourite subject in school is “lunch.” The last picture she posted on Instagram? “My cat and I.”
At the peak of her friends’ playfulness, they start fooling around with her medals. Reid, a lacrosse player, tucks two in each of her jeans pockets and starts doing squats. “I’m going for 30,” she says. “That’s a leg workout.” Reid twists and jumps and wiggles her bottom, with the medals shaking like tail feathers. The girls are making Olympic medals seem like no big deal, and that’s exactly what friends, in Oleksiak’s case, are for.