Penny Oleksiak has earned the title of Canada’s most decorated Olympian at the age of 21, with a combined total of seven medals — four from the 2016 games in Rio, and three from the 2020 games in Tokyo. This is the most any swimmer and athlete from Canada has gathered, ever.
“It was something I was thinking about a lot going into the Olympics,” Oleksiak said. “It was really weird to me that I actually achieved it, and like now, when I pull out all seven medals, it’s just odd to me to think that of all people, it's me. Everyone always asks me that and I don’t really have an explanation. It’s odd, overwhelming, and super cool. I can’t even understand it myself.”
Oleksiak’s journey to the Olympics, and all the medals, started when she was around 10 years old. Already an athlete as a gymnast and a dancer, Oleksiak decided to trade her ballet shoes and leotards for goggles and swim caps. The hunt for a club team instantly started and after trying out for her fourth team, Oleksiak joined the Toronto Swim Club.
“The coach saw how tall I was, and he was like ‘Okay, I’ll give it a shot”, and he kind of just let me train with them,” Oleksiak said. “The rest was history.”
“I think my parents always kind of just pushed us to be the best at whatever we were trying to do,” Oleksiak said. “It was almost expected of us to really excel at what we were doing because we were always given the best opportunities.”
In Rio, Oleksiak competed in five races: the 100-meter Butterfly (she earned silver with a time of 56.46, crushing a Canadian record and her World Junior record at the time), 100-meter Freestyle (she broke the Olympic record with a time of 52.70 and earned herself a gold medal), 4x100-meter freestyle relay (the team broke the Canadian record and earned a bronze medal, which was the first team in 40 years to win a medal in that race for Canada), and again won bronze in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Oleksiak also finished in fifth place in the 4x100-meter medley relay.
“When you get to go to events like the Olympics, it really just breaks it all down for you and you realize how big of a deal it really is,” Oleksiak said. “I am able to represent Canada and be one of the fastest swimmers in Canada.”
After crushing Rio, Tokyo was next on the list. Even though the Tokyo Games were pushed back due to the global pandemic, Oleskiak adapted and performed well, winning three medals — a silver in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay as well as a bronze in both the 200-meter freestyle and 4x100-meter medley relay.
“Mentally, I think Tokyo was a lot different for me than 2016,” Oleksiak said. “Going into 2016, I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t really know anyone that I was racing. It was my first senior national team in Canada. I just tried to get my hand on the wall first because that's all I kind of knew how to do when I was like 15, 16 years old. It’s been five, six years almost, so this Olympics, I was ready for it. I went in and I was pretty calm and confident and I felt good, and I knew I had a lot of good training behind me.”
Now, as Oleksiak prepares for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, there are a few things outside of the pool she is working on. Oleksiak’s social media presence makes for a great follow, and she is working with a company called Aquasphere to design suits, goggles, and other swimwear. Oleksiak noted that she is very particular with her equipment, as a few milliseconds can separate first and second place, so it’s important to have gear that makes her feel fast.
“You never really see a swim brand that is looking to its athletes for tips on how to make the best training suits, goggles, racing suits, everything,” Oleksiak said. “I’m fortunate to be a part of [Aquasphere’s] team and just be a part of the whole process.”