In difficult fields like music, math, and sports, prodigies appear as if from nowhere. If they are keen, and nurtured properly, and the stars align, they have a chance to shine. But starting early can be as much an obstacle as a blessing. For one thing, it takes prodigious amounts of focus and effort. Childhood flies by. You need passion and self-discipline. Ask Mozart, or Tiger Woods.
Competitive swimming is one of those fields. Imagine a sport where you are out of the natural human element, immersed in water, and where the difference between first and fourth is seconds, tenths of a second or less, even over longer distances. No matter how great your natural gifts, it is a highly technical sport that demands sustained power. You are always on the knife edge between too much and not enough.
Penny Oleksiak, now 22, grew up in Toronto and was drawn, inexorably, to competitive swimming, where her mother had excelled growing up in Scotland. Penny’s talent was enhanced by discipline and a competitive streak, and nurtured by her parents, coaches, and teammates. Even so, imagine, as a teenager, getting up early to drive to the pool, then returning after school to the pool or the gym — six days out of seven.
She knew about sports. Her Polish-American father Richard played basketball and football and competed in athletics. Her mother held multiple Scottish Age Group swimming records. The youngest of five, Penny grew up watching her older siblings compete. Her brother Jamie Oleksiak plays defence in the NHL, her older sister Hayley was a rower in university, and her older brother Jake played college hockey.
When she was growing up, Penny’s family lived beside neighbours who had a pool. The Oleksiak kids were always welcome to come over. “Since age 5, I was always in the pool in good weather,” she says. “I celebrated my birthday at their pool. In summer I would hop over the fence. They had a kid my age. It was fun.”
From the start, she loved to be in the pool — but was afraid of open water. She took gymnastics and competitive dance and wanted to try competitive swimming. Her parents supported her, as they did all the kids. At age 10, Penny tried out for swim clubs in Toronto. She didn’t have much endurance and was rejected by all clubs but one. She was accepted by coach Gary Nolden at the Toronto Olympian Swim Team. “He had a lot of faith in me,” she says. “If I hadn’t gone to that club, I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
She recalls how the coaches were accommodating and patient with her and the other girls. It was clear they wanted to develop their athletes. At first, she was in the slowest group but progressed quickly and within two years was in the fastest group. “Coach Nolden later said he saw something in me the second he met me,” she says. “He taught me so many things. The coaches made the training enjoyable for us. This is important when you have to wake up at 5:00 am.”
A race by Oleksiak at the University of Toronto drew the attention of coach Ben Titley, who would go on to lead Canada’s Olympic team. Titley began working with her, sporadically at first, then on a monthly and weekly basis. It paid off. As a 14-year-old at the 2014 Canadian Age Group Championships, Oleksiak won 10 individual medals, setting a personal best in every race, and added three relay golds.
This was just the start. At her first Olympics, in Rio in 2016, Penny Oleksiak was 16 years old. She won four medals, the most ever by a Canadian at a single summer Games. She was also Canada’s youngest Olympic gold medalist and was named Canada’s Athlete of the Year. Then she won three more medals in relay events at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, making her Canada’s all-time most decorated Olympian. Moreover, with nine career medals, Oleksiak is Canada’s most decorated swimmer all time at the FINA World Championships.
The year that wasn’t
Then came 2022. In early March, she contracted Covid-19, just three weeks before the Canadian senior swimming trials. This could have been a setback, but she swam well and confirmed her spot as a top athlete on the swim team.
Covid was just a hint of what was to come. In August, she was on vacation in Florida. In a few days she was planning to fly to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro as the lead fundraiser for Thrive for Good, a Canadian not-for-profit that teaches poor families and communities to produce small organic gardens packed with nutrition. This was a passion project for Penny.
When the injury came, it didn’t happen in the pool or the gym. “I was in Orlando to get a change of scene,” Penny recalls. “Just my dog and I staying at an Airbnb with a pool. I came back from a 2-hour walk. I was sitting down. When I stood up, I tore the meniscus in my knee.”
The injury was the result of gradual wear and tear over time. Three weeks before, her massage therapist had told her there was some fluid build-up on her knee. “I’d never had a serious injury, so I didn’t think much of it,” says Penny.
The consequences were immediate. No climbing Kilimanjaro, no training, no competition, at least for a while. Four days later she was back in Toronto for surgery. She put some images on social media of her coming out of the operating room. She was on a gurney, wrapped in blankets. Her eyes were half shut, her knee covered with markings, scars, a bit of blood. Two weeks after the injury she was back in the gym, and back to swimming soon after that.
“I took time out of the pool to get my strength back,” she says. “I was wearing a full brace in the pool, which was annoying, and another one in the gym. This felt odd but it helped a lot. The pain was all brand new to me. It was weird. I was starting at ground zero.”
Recovery has been a big challenge, but like most elite athletes she is supported by a team of coaches, trainers, and therapists. One is for the mental side. This therapist told her to be prepared, that the path to healing would be uneven, with some unexpected rough patches. “Even now some days are worse than others,” Penny says. “Some days you feel your career, even your world, is ending. My therapist taught me to take my time and to be ok with whatever the outcome is.”
This is easy to say. In practice, each day you must adjust not only to what the world throws at you, but to the state of your own body and mind. It can be a rollercoaster ride.
Live in the moment
Penny recalls the support of her parents. “They wanted their kids to be the best they could be,” she says. “They would put everything into it. We weren’t super-rich, so it was a lot for them and we appreciate what they did.”
Her oldest brother Jamie was always serious about hockey. After research by their mother, he moved to the United States at a young age. “Watching him motivated me to get good as well. In my case, this was a lot for my parents as I trained before and after school.” Her mother scheduled her increasingly busy days. Her father was the designated driver. Despite the workload, “the fun and enjoyment part have always been huge for me,” she says. “I have to enjoy what I’m doing. I like to pass this feeling around.”
Even as young as at ages 11 and 12, the swimmers worked out with weights, not just in the pool. “It could have been intense, but the trainers made it fun and catered to what we liked to do. They pushed me too. Now I push myself all the time — and I’ve become very good at scheduling.”
She has always been part of a supportive environment. The young swimmers felt a sense of responsibility, not only to themselves but to their teammates as well. The coaches were careful to cultivate a sense of fun. The kids learned how to maintain focus, even on days when they were not at their best. Especially on those days.
“The way I keep my focus is I don’t think too far ahead,” says Penny. “I have to be present in every training session. I adapt to how I feel so that I can be the best I can for that day, both for me and my team. If I’m tired, have a slight injury, or don’t have much energy, I don’t push myself. I focus on technique.”
Sponsorship and social activism
When did Penny realize how good she was, and how doors would open for her? “I don’t think I realized my own career potential until after the Olympics. Many opportunities were coming my way.”
The path she would follow was set in part by her parents’ example. “My parents were big on giving back. When I was presented with opportunities, I knew it was important to partner with organizations that give back to society. I love people who care about what I care about.”
Case in point: the not-for-profit Thrive for Good, which is funded primarily by the profits from Natural Calm and Boltons Naturals, whose magnesium-based products she finds enhance her stamina and mental focus. Thrive teaches families in Africa and elsewhere how to grow small efficient gardens with plants that provide high-quality nutrients and natural healing properties.
“Founders Linda and Dale Bolton are working to educate people to do the best they can with what they are able to do,” says Penny. “You don’t see that approach very often. They invited me for dinner. It was so natural. I’m kind of terrified of big spectacles. They are wholesome — that’s my vibe. We had a home cooked meal. They are super amazing and were so welcoming. I had the best time. They’ve been teaching me about the world, and how to help those who need it.”
Reflecting her broad appeal, Penny’s list of current sponsors is diverse. It also includes Royal Bank of Canada (banking), Aquasphere (swimming innovations), Royale (home paper products), Tim Hortons (restaurants), and Hekate (functional mushrooms), where she is an equity partner.
Penny Oleksiak has become more health conscious over the years, especially about nutrition. “I’m super big on veggies — lots of fruits and vegetables,” she says. “Over the last year eating this has been so transformative to my health. Before I didn’t think about nutrition too much. My dad is a vegetarian. He sends me stories about athletes who have gone on this path. One of the girls on our team has become vegetarian — it was transformative for her.”
As for supplements, she has begun taking functional mushrooms, in particular Lion’s Mane and Reishi. She takes vitamins B and D, and especially magnesium, which she learned about through Natural Calm. “It’s also a testament to my recovery from the surgery. I have better quality training. It has improved my sleep and recovery from training. It makes it easier to wind down and go to sleep.”
Indeed, for all athletes, deep uninterrupted sleep is essential. Penny needs a minimum of eight hours a night. “This is key in my ability to sustain training week after week and to be consistent. Also, when I’m rested, I tend not to get sick. I feel like if I’m to be my best as a person, I need all that sleep.”
Her ideal is to go to sleep by 10:00 PM. She’s trying to get out of the habit of looking at her phone and watching TV. “I minimize that now. I read or listen to a podcast or to a meditation with music.”
Within the tight constraints of her busy life, Penny finds time to enjoy herself. She uses the words “enjoy” and “fun” a lot. While she loves to read, she has to fit it into her schedule, which includes flying. On long flights she just reads and sleeps. Her father is a screenwriter who mails books to her and her brother, the hockey player in Seattle.
“I take advantage of the opportunities to travel,” she says. “Since my injury I know I have to embrace them because they won’t be here forever. I want to have cool memories — and why not?”
Her former teammate and good friend Kayla Sanchez now swims for the Philippines. Penny went to visit her. “I got to travel and learn about another culture. I was frustrated with training a few months after the surgery. It helped to take things slow and enjoy what I’m doing.” For Christmas she flew to Seattle to be with her brother Jamie and family. Jamie, who is extremely fit himself, added swimming to his workouts after watching his sister’s success.
Let it unfold
In 2017, her father the writer Richard Oleksiak spoke about his daughter Penny to the CBC’s Scott Russell:
Her story has risen up and taken over the entire family. Hopefully it’s not the end but instead part of the process. The story has no pre-determined conclusion, but it seems so many people are anxious to put an end on the story, be it success or failure. Maybe we should all just let it unfold.
Failure is always a possibility. But as far as I’m concerned, as long as she does her best, then that’s not failure. She’s talented but she works tremendously hard. We can’t comprehend how hard she works.
Sport is largely about myth. But that myth is easy to corrupt. I feel it’s my responsibility to protect her from negative influences and people who want to prematurely write the end to her story.
CBC sports: analysis by former Olympian swimmer Bethany MacLean:
In sprint and middle-distance freestyle, you need both size and strength. She’s a little over 6 feet tall and has a long wingspan. She has great technique. She’ll hunt down her opponents so she can close out the race in the big moments. She thrives under pressure. She works hard in the weight room and then she does yoga and Pilates so that she has both strength and flexibility.
Name: Penelope Oleksiak
Height: 186 cm / 6 ft 1 in
Club: High Performance Centre – Ontario
Coach: Ryan Mallette
Previous Coaches: Ben Titley, Bill O’Toole
Residence: Toronto, ON
Favourite Movie: Little Mermaid
Favourite Book: Milk and Honey
Favourite Band: Migos
Other Sport: Basketball
Hobbies: Read, eat, play with dogs
Off season interests: Volleyball and tubing
A sign from the gods
In Greek mythology, Penelope was the queen of Ithaca, the wife of the Greek hero Odysseus. She was lucky to survive her first day of life. Desiring a son, her father the Spartan prince Icarius threw his daughter into the sea to drown her when she was born. The baby girl was rescued by ducks. Taking it as a sign from the gods, Icarius then took care of his daughter and named her Penelope, after the Greek for duck.
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