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Bruce Arthur: Penny Oleksiak is Canada’s most decorated Olympian after medley relay bronze. Swim medals are the new normal


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Bruce Arthur: Penny Oleksiak is Canada’s most decorated Olympian after medley relay bronze. Swim medals are the new normal

TOKYO—Canada’s final medal hope in the Olympic pool ended in that newly familiar way: with Penny Oleksiak reaching for the wall. The women’s 4×100-metre medley relay was a chance at a sixth medal to match Rio, after a pandemic that locked our swimmers out of the pools. And for Penny, it was a chance to do something nobody had ever done.

And when she touched, Oleksiak had a seventh Olympic medal, more than any Canadian in history at age 21. She stands alone.

But she needed a team, too. Silver medallist Kylie Masse of Windsor put the Canadians first after her opening backstroke leg. Then came the question mark: 24-year-old Sydney Pickrem, the Florida transplant, is an individual medley specialist, and her time in the relay semifinal would not have made the women’s 100 breaststroke final. She stepped forward, though. She tried.

“I was absolutely sh—ing myself,” Pickrem told the CBC. She had the slowest breaststroke leg in the race.

But it was enough, because Canada has a team. Gold medallist Maggie Mac Neil was still third after the butterfly leg, because nobody swam it faster.

And that left Penny. Oleksiak did not dominate this meet the way she did in Rio. She half-joked that stacking races on the same morning was easier when she was 16. What isn’t, really?

So yes, she dropped in the 100 free, stopped swimming the 100 fly, burned her legs on the way to bronze in the 200 free, anchored the 4×200 relay that just missed.

Here, she was too far back to catch the Aussies and the Americans, but Oleksiak closed with the second-fastest 100 free in the race, and Canada won bronze in a Canadian record time of 3:52.60, well clear of China. It was Canada’s sixth swim medal of the Games, matching Rio and filled with Canadian records.

“I honestly am glad I didn’t win it in an individual (event) because this just makes it 10 times sweeter, knowing that I’ve accomplished this history with girls that are also making history,” Oleksiak told CBC about her record-breaking seventh medal.

“This is only the beginning for Team Canada and swimming. We were young in 2016 and we’re still young, and going to hit our peak soon — 2024, 2028. We’re on the come-up, and I love that.”

Oleksiak didn’t have to dominate here for Canada to succeed. Mac Neil won the gold this time, in the 100 butterfly; Masse won the individual silvers in the 100- and 200-metre backstroke. Oleksiak won bronze in the 200-metre freestyle, and anchored a silver in the 4×100 free relay, and the bronze here.

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“She’s had a great meet,” said CBC analyst and University of Toronto coach Byron MacDonald. “It’s just the world went by.”

Oleksiak remains the anchor of the program, even after a cycle in which she pushed the sport away before coming back. As a swimming nation, Canada has evolved into something small, but mighty. It’s worth remembering that three cycles ago, in Beijing, it was just Ryan Cochrane and a lonely 1,500-metre freestyle bronze. With the U.S. and Australia in a different weight class, and other mid-range powers like Team G.B. rising, six medals is no joke.

“To me, the key (to) this meet was (21-year-old) Maggie Mac Neil,” said MacDonald. “And the reason is that it shows that we’re bringing in new blood. You take a look at the Hungarian team, you take a look at that the Italian team, the Swedes. A lot of them are in their late 20s, in their 30s, and they’re using the same horses Games after Games after Games.

“The worry was: Was Rio a blip? Because everything went our way there — every one-hundredth of a second, everybody rising at the right time. If the Games would have been a year earlier, Penny and Taylor (Ruck) and Kylie wouldn’t been on the team, which would have taken away all our medals except Hilary Caldwell’s (bronze).

“So the question is: Do we need breaks to win medals? And the beauty now is, you remember Hilary Caldwell’s quote, right? Medals are now the new normal.”

Canada didn’t get every break here. Oleksiak was fourth in the 100-metre free by seven-hundredths of a second; the women’s 4×200 freestyle relay team finished fourth behind three world records; 14-year-old Summer McIntosh of Toronto was fourth in the 400 free; the Canadian men, with 18-year-old potential star Josh Liendo of Markham in the mix, was six-tenths of a second out of a medal in the 4×100 free. Kayla Sanchez is a strong freestyler who is still 20; Ruck can hopefully still swim her way back to her former level.

The fearless McIntosh may be the next star. She played soccer as a kid, tried gymnastics, skied, competed in figure skating — “basically every sport girls do,” she says — but swimming is, so far, her life.

“I love swimming with all my heart since I was very little, and I think that if you love to do something, you’ll be good at it,” says McIntosh. “I just like the social aspect a lot too, just to see my friends, but I love the day-to-day grind. Like you feel super successful after every practice, and you feel like you got something out of the day. I also love competing and racing, which is so fun — to have that adrenalin rush, to race people from all over the world.”

She’s 14. She competes like a badger in a fight. But who knows? This was the year of Mac Neil in a backyard pool in the snow, and Masse doing dryland training in a hat and mitts and still, success. Nobody may want to try it again, frankly.

But Canadian swimming is different now and, like the great Penny Oleksiak, it’s not done. Three years to Paris.

Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur

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