Penny Oleksiak was nervous. Jittery enough that she spent a good part of her day sitting in her room at Rio’s Athletes Village, shaking. Canada’s outpouring of joy and pride in response to her and her teammates’ bronze medal performance in the women’s 4 x 100-m freestyle relay Saturday left her happy, but worried. Concerned that maybe she’d be letting the country down if she failed to hit the Olympic podium again in the 100-m butterfly finals Sunday night.
It’s the kind of reaction you would expect from a 16-year-old, in the spotlight for the first time on the world’s biggest sporting stage. Except the nerves then just went away. Ten minutes before the race, Oleksiak decided to be calm instead and trust that Canada “had my back.”
The six-foot-one Torontonian loped out to the pool deck, waved to the crowd, took her mark and laid down the race of her very short life. Sitting in third at the turn, she powered down the back stretch to take a silver medal in 56.46—well behind Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden’s golden world record of 55.48, but comfortably ahead of American Dana Vollmer, the 2012 Olympic champion who had to settle for 2016 bronze. In doing so, she lowered her own Canadian and junior world records—again.
“I think a lot of people knew that Sarah was going to win this race,” Oleksiak said afterwards. “I definitely had my eye out for her when we turned and I saw her out in front and I just tried to hold on.”
The push to the finish was so furious that Oleksiak, nicknamed “the child” by her not-that-much-older teammates, wasn’t even sure how she had placed. She took a few seconds to catch her breath before daring to turn around and look at the scoreboard.
“I wasn’t really even sure that I medalled, until I looked up and saw the Canadian flags in the air around me,” she said. “Getting to see that and getting to see that you medalled is just an amazing feeling.”
Then she searched the stands and tried to locate her dad, Richard, mother, Alison, sister, Hailey, and big brother, Jamie, a defenceman with the NHL’s Dallas Stars.
“I saw my dad. He stood up and waved to me and he was literally the only person I saw in the crowd. Like everything else was just blurred.” Oleksiak blew him a kiss and calmly strolled away to the waiting TV cameras.
Oleksiak seems awfully nonchalant about two medals in two days, and turning in the best Olympic performance by a Canadian woman since Anne Ottenbrite’s gold, silver, bronze in Los Angeles in 1984—16 years before Oleksiak was born. Perhaps that’s because she is so used to winning: six medals at the 2015 FINA World Junior Championships, eight at the 2015 Australian Age Group Championships as a 14-year-old, and 10 at 2014 Canadian Age Group Championships.
In many ways she’s still a kid. Just a couple of weeks before leaving for Rio she showed up at the Toronto Summer Swim Camp at the outdoor Olympic pool in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood to do flutterboard lengths with the little swimmers, shyly posing for pictures and signing autographs.
Bob Hayes, the camp’s director, used to coach Oleksiak at the Toronto Swim Club. She arrived as a raw 12-year-old, having only been at it for a couple of years under the tutelage of her first coach, Gary Nolden. But Hayes recalls her talent being evident to all.
“She came in without a lot of technique, but she just loved to race,” he says over the phone from Toronto. “She was very invested.”
The skinny kid challenged him as a coach, Hayes says, asking questions, demanding answers to her problems, and always wanting to know how to be better.
Within a year, she had caught the eye of Ben Titley, the Brit who now coaches Canada’s Olympic team. On a Wednesday night session at the University of Toronto, where the swim club shared the pool with the national high-performance squad, he wandered over and asked Hayes for her name.
“He said, ‘Who’s that? I want to work with that girl once a week.’ ” It was the only time that ever happened. Hayes estimates he has worked with more than 1,000 Canadian swimmers in his years as a coach. Oleksiak isn’t just the first to medal. She’s the first to make the Olympics.
“She’s always been able to find a way to win,” he says. “She may not win by a lot, but if it’s tight, she’ll win by a stroke.”
As Rio progresses, Canada will get to see if that still holds true. Oleksiak still has four events to go—the 100-m freestyle, the 200-m free, the 4×200-m freestyle relay and the 4×100 individual medley.
“Before [Olympic] trials I didn’t even think I would make the team,” Oleksiak said minutes before stepping out to collect her silver on the podium. “I for sure want to get there again, but I’m an Olympic medallist already and I can’t complain if I don’t get another medal.”
Who’d like to bet against her?