TOKYO—Penny Oleksiak comes back. That is the lesson of these Olympics for her, after she became a star in Rio five years ago, after she fell out of love with swimming for a time, after she came back to this. Oleksiak had already won a fifth career medal in Tokyo. Wednesday, she wasn’t sure she would win a sixth.
But in the 200-metre freestyle — a race Oleksiak did not attempt in Rio, and which she has never been confident she could succeed at — Oleksiak went out fast, fell behind, and came down the stretch with legs that burned the whole way, all the way.
She is a racer, though, a born racer. Oleksiak closed the gap in the final 50 metres to win bronze, and is now Canada’s most decorated Summer Olympian. And, with six medals, she is tied with cyclist and and speed skater Clara Hughes and speed skater Cindy Klassen overall. It seems almost inevitable now that Oleksiak will be the most decorated Canadian Olympian of all time. Penny Oleksiak comes back, and finds history.
“I touched the wall and I saw the lights beside my name, and I honestly didn’t really care,” said Oleksiak, holding a bronze medal. “I was just like, my legs are killing me.”
A lot of people can be fast at this level. The best racers, though, swim best through the pressure and the pain. Oleksiak started fast but was fourth going into her final 50, in a race where American legend Katie Ledecky seemed to be saving herself for her 1,500-metre freestyle later that morning, and in which emerging legend Ariarne Titmus closed hard to win. Oleksiak was seen to be swimming for bronze, though it was Hungary’s Siobhan Haughey and not Ledecky who won silver. Oleksiak had to catch China’s Yang Junxuan.
And she did, and Yang faded. It hurt.
“Honestly, I thought it was pretty obvious it was on my last turn,” said Oleksiak. “I pushed off, I only could get like two kicks out of myself off the wall and then had to breathe on the first stroke, and it was really hurting. And the last 25 I was like breathing every two (strokes), and every time I took a breath I was, like, angry at myself for breathing in the last 25.”
She pushed to the wall, though, as she always does. Rio was different. She was 16 and she kept finding the podium, and she felt lucky every time she won a medal. Here, she doesn’t. She knows what kind of swimmer she is.
“I just love the Olympics,” Oleksiak said. “I think they’re so fun, and I think just knowing that, like, the whole world is watching is super crazy. Before my 200 today I had a moment where I literally thought I was gonna pass out from nerves; I was in the ready room and I was, like, OK Penny, if you come last, it doesn’t matter, you still have like three more races to get medals. Then I just had to calm myself down and really just think of it as a regular meet, I guess.
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“I really wanted a medal, but like I knew it was gonna be a really tough race.”
But she did it. The pandemic was good for Oleksiak: She learned to love training again, and at the Canadian trials learned to love racing again. She had never felt up to the 200 freestyle, but she built up the confidence in the year before this. Despite the pandemic-related extended absence from the pool — “everyone kind of (experienced) COVID a little differently, and every country dealt with it differently, and Ontario did not deal with it in the most ideal way for us,” she said — she became this swimmer again.
And she is not done. Oleksiak intends to swim the 4×200 freestyle relay Thursday, and her 2016 gold medal event, the 100-metre freestyle Friday. If she has anything left, she could try the 4×100 medley relay Sunday, with semifinals for every race added in. Nothing is guaranteed, but she will try.
But she has two medals here already, and six altogether, and she stands alone among Canada’s Summer Olympians. Oleksiak says that here, without family or Canadians to look for during the medal ceremony, she has looked at the other swimmers, especially the gold medallists. She knows what it’s like.
“I get so happy for them,” Oleksiak said. “Knowing that we all put in so much work, and … I know the feeling of being up there, and it’s just really nice to look up and be happy for them, to know how they feel with their flag going up. I get really, like, emotional for them.”
At the Olympic trials in late June in the Pan Am Centre in Scarborough, national team and Oleksiak coach Ben Titley wasn’t sure what he could publicly expect. No nation spent more time out of the pool than Canada; until recently the coaches had been instructing swimmers via video.
But Canada wasn’t sure what to expect in Rio, either, and this year, more than any other, anything can happen. Canada didn’t have a top-ranked swimmer coming into this meet, but it had several in the top five, and then it’s about the races. They already have four medals. So far, so good.
“I mean I never really get into what I think we can win what I think medals we can do just because … I know people like to hear that stuff, but well, it’s based on other people,” said Titley. “You could be in an ice hockey match where it’s actually you interacting with someone else. I can affect your results. Track and field, swimming, trampoline in gymnastics: it’s you, you can only control you. Kylie Masse can’t grab her competitors’ foot and pull it back in the 100 backstroke, right? You’ve got your lane, away you go.”
That has always been one of Oleksiak’s great strengths: a lane, and a race, and a willingness to push even when everything hurts and burns. We’ve never seen anyone like her, and she’s not done yet.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur
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