Penny Oleksiak stared at the wall and told herself to be proud of her performance. Her country already was.
It was 20 seconds after she touched the timing pad in the women’s 100-metre freestyle final that Oleksiak finally turned to the scoreboard and joined in celebrating her Olympic gold medal.
Winner of four medals at the Rio Summer Games, the 16-year-old swimmer has been voted the Canadian Press female athlete of the year.
The Toronto native was the overwhelming favourite, earning 61 votes (94 per cent) in the annual survey of editors and broadcasters from across the country.
“Penny Oleksiak not only made all Canadians proud, but she did it with a wonder in her eyes that we could all share and relate to,” Hamilton Spectator sports editor Jeff Day said.
Past winners of the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award, which has been handed out since 1933, include golfer Brooke Henderson, tennis player Eugenie Bouchard, hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser and speedskaters Catriona Le May Doan and Cindy Klassen.
“It’s kind of unreal to be a part of those names because I know who all of them are,” Oleksiak told The Canadian Press. “They’re all definitely people I’ve looked up to for a really, really long time and people that are super, super inspiring to not just me, but a lot of other young girls getting into sport. It means a lot to me.”
Henderson, last year’s winner, received two votes in 2016. Moguls skier Chloe Dufour-Lapointe and bobsled pilot Kaillie Humphries each received one.
Bobbie Rosenfeld, an Olympic medallist in track and field and a multi-sport athlete, was named Canada’s best female athlete of the half-century in 1950.
Oleksiak isn’t the youngest woman to win the award. Figure skater Tracey Wainman was 13 when she was the recipient in 1981.
Sprinter Andre De Grasse won the Lionel Conacher Award as Canada’s male athlete of the year on Monday. The CP team of the year will be announced Wednesday.
Given the choice of three words to describe her year, Oleksiak went for “dream come true.”
She had already won a butterfly silver and swam the anchor legs for a pair of freestyle relay bronze in Rio before her thrilling come-from-behind swim for gold.
Second-last at the turn, Oleksiak hunted down five competitors and touched the wall at the same time as Simone Manuel of the United States.
Everyone at the pool nearly gave themselves whiplash turning to look at the scoreboard, except Oleksiak.
She was among the last in the venue to find out she’d tied Manuel for gold in an Olympic-record time of 52.70 seconds.
“It didn’t feel that long to me,” Oleksiak said. “I was just trying to tell myself to be happy with whatever would be on the board. I knew I put 100 per cent into the race.”
Oleksiak achieved a series of firsts by a Canadian athlete in 2016. She was the first Canadian swimmer to win four Olympic medals and the first Canadian athlete to win four Olympic medals at one Summer Games. No Canadian woman had ever won an Olympic medal in the 100 freestyle and before Oleksiak, no Olympic champion had ever been born in the 2000s.
The Canadian put an exclamation mark on her year at December’s world short-course championship in Windsor, Ont., winning a freestyle bronze medal and anchoring relay teams to a pair of golds and a silver.
“I might be prime minister at 44 but Penny Oleksiak really made me feel like an underachiever,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a recent interview. “She was amazing to me, and just a great example of how incredibly strong young people can be.”
Built like a torpedo with narrow hips and shoulders on a six-foot-two frame, Oleksiak puts those genetic gifts to work.
“She’s able to push her body to places that myself and yourself would not really like to put ourselves in very often,” said Ben Titley, Oleksiak’s coach.
The daughter of Richard and Alison Oleksiak is the youngest of three athletic children. Sister Hayley is a university rower and brother Jamie is a Dallas Stars defenceman.
“She has a great family with a background in athletics in general,” Titley said. “They all give something to Penny, I think, which helps makes her who she is.
“Not just when she steps on those blocks to try to win medals for Canada, but when she’s here in a daily training environment trying to push herself to be better. And it’s my job to try to direct that in the best way possible.”
The Grade 11 student who likes social media, doughnuts and Drake, no longer flies under the radar. Her Twitter following went from 763 followers pre-Rio to over 55,000. She’s thrown out the first pitch at a Blue Jays game.
Oleksiak learned this year that she’s capable of so much more than she thought.
“It told me to just believe in myself more and I’m stronger than I think I am,” Oleksiak said. “Mainly just because going into Rio and other bigger meets, I really didn’t think I would have a chance, being so young and everything.
“I just needed to believe in myself and figure out my strength, which I think I learned in Rio.”