‘I don’t want to disappoint Canada’: Penny Oleksiak speaks ahead of massive competition

When Penny Oleksiak sought reprieve during the 2016 Olympics, she turned to roller-coasters.

After the swim events were complete and the whirlwind of four medals was relegated to the rear-view mirror, there was just one question left: who would be Canada’s flag-bearer at the closing ceremony?

The Canadian Olympic Committee told Oleksiak she was under serious consideration, but she wasn’t buying it, considering what sprinter Andre De Grasse had accomplished on the track with a silver and two bronze medals.

Besides, Oleksiak was ready to be home. So she flew out early. She went to the amusement park Wonderland just outside of Toronto with friends and visited an animal shelter in hopes of adopting a dog. She left with a black cat named Rio.

“And [the COC] called me a day later saying ‘you’re the flag-bearer, you need to fly back [to Rio de Janeiro] tomorrow morning.’ I was like, ‘OK, fine.’ So then I flew back,” Oleksiak recounted.

Fast forward nearly three years, and Oleksiak still has trouble comprehending the gravity of her Olympic accomplishments.

“People always say: ‘do you understand what you did?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t. Let’s go hang out,'” Oleksiak said.

A refresher: gold in 100-metre freestyle, silver in 100 butterfly, bronze in the women’s 4×100 and 4×200 relays.

Two sides of success

But there are two sides to the coin of Olympic success. The first is the weight of expectations, which Oleksiak called her biggest pressure.

“I think it’s just I don’t want to disappoint Canada, which sounds weird and sounds really cheesy. But going into the next Olympics, I don’t want people to be disappointed in me if I don’t do as well as they think I’m going to do,” Oleksiak said.

On the flip side, being an Olympic champion comes with the confidence you can do it again.

“I think there’s definitely that little voice in the back of my mind that helps me when I’m doubting myself in certain races where it’s just like, ‘OK, you did this at the Olympics and you did this at another meet. You can definitely do it here,'” Oleksiak said.

WATCH | How Oleksiak’s life changed after the Rio Olympics:

The Canadian Olympic champion had to adjust to the pressure that comes with winning gold. 3:31

Oleksiak, now 19, was rightfully showered with praise for her Olympic performance. She won the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete and was named CBC Sports’ athlete of the year. But quickly, Oleksiak learned just how difficult it is to have sustained success.

In training ahead of the 2017 season, Oleksiak was dealing with a lingering shoulder injury when a medicine ball struck her head. The injuries didn’t prevent her participation at the 2017 aquatics world championships, but they perhaps hindered her performance. Oleksiak left with zero individual medals.  

At the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2018, Oleksiak swam days after the death of her grandmother. Once again, she landed no individual medals.

Oleksiak took the rest of the summer off to get back to being a teenager. She went to music festivals, at the Cheesecake Factory in Yorkdale Shopping Centre and finally got a dog, Norman.

“I’m never resting. I’m always doing something all the time just because it keeps my mind off of pressure,” Oleksiak said.

Return to her roots

Oleksiak also returned to Canadian Olympic team coach Ben Titley after a year back with her first swim coach Bill O’Toole.

“She has a lot more distractions around her now than she did previously. I don’t mean that in a good way,” Titley said. “That’s something she has to manage, but she’s also grown as a person. I think she’s more comfortable now in her own skin than she was 12 months ago.”

Over those 12 months, Oleksiak has faded further and further out of Canadian consciousness. She was overshadowed at the Commonwealth Games by teammate Taylor Ruck, who tied the all-time individual Commonwealth record by capturing eight medals. Oleksiak didn’t return to competition until the Canadian national team trials in early April.

Oleksiak’s 2016 experience was her first major senior international meet — she didn’t swim at the previous year’s world championships. And so Oleksiak began at the peak of competition, and she climbed to the top of the podium there.

You can imagine how small ensuing meets would feel when Olympic gold comes so soon. It’s why Oleksiak felt comfortable with the year off. Everything she does is building toward Tokyo 2020.


Actor Jason Priestley, right, leads the crowd to a standing ovation for co-presenter Penny Oleksiak at the 2017 Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto in 2017. Olympic fame has turned Oleksiak into a national celebrity. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

Load management

To borrow a term from the Toronto Raptors in their handling of star Kawhi Leonard, Oleksiak is using load management. And just as the NBA’s regular season was deemed “practice” by Leonard, the middle three years of the Olympic quadrennial were cast aside by Oleksiak.

“But unfortunately for Olympic athletes it’s like the seventh game and it’s your last shift and there’s a minute to go and that’s how you’re gonna be rated,” said Byron MacDonald, swim coach at the University of Toronto and CBC Sports analyst. “And then you can’t atone for that for four more years. So it’s really, really hard to be an Olympic athlete.”

Oleksiak’s Olympic successes were the impetus for her increased fame, which she said has simmered down in the last year. Beginning with the world aquatics championship in Gwangju, South Korea, that spotlight will return.

Oleksiak won’t necessarily be judged for her accomplishments at this meet in Korea, but a dip in the pool against her future Olympic competition is at least a measuring stick.

“It’s a long enough time [from the Olympics] that someone new can come and it’s not that long a time that you can’t get away with not doing things right. So we will see,” Titley said.

Oleksiak races on the first day of the swimming events on Sunday. No, it’s not the Olympics. It’s not the top of the roller-coaster, but it’s an important part of the ride, and for her sake, hopefully part of an ascent.

Titley has one key for Oleksiak: focus.

“If Penny Oleksiak works hard every day and minimizes distractions, she’s a fabulous athlete. She can achieve great things.”

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