TOKYO—With Penny Oleksiak putting in a clutch performance in a rousing final leg, Canada’s women’s 4×100-metre freestyle swim team won a silver medal on Sunday.
It was the country’s first podium finish at these long-awaited, no-expectations Tokyo Olympics, where Canadian Olympic Committee officials have insisted the conditions of the pandemic have made it impossible to set a performance standard for Canada’s medal count. But if recent history is a guide, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe the relay medal is a harbinger of good times ahead — at least in the pool.
On Sunday, the team of Oleksiak, Kayla Sanchez, Rebecca Smith and Margaret Mac Neil — the latter an 11th-hour sub for double Rio medallist Taylor Ruck, who swam in the heats here — celebrated together after finishing only behind a world-record performance from Australia. A lot of the credit went to Oleksiak, who entered the pool with Canada in fourth after 300 metres. Oleksiak narrowly touched the wall ahead of Simone Manuel of the United States, which won bronze.
When a Canadian team anchored by Oleksiak won bronze in the event in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, it was Canada’s first women’s swimming medal since 1996. It also turned out to be a tone-setter for a watershed performance in the pool. A day later, Oleksiak would win silver in the 100-metre butterfly, the second of an incredible haul of four Olympic medals for the then-16-year-old phenom — the most by a Canadian in a single summer Games.
In all, Canada would win six swim medals in Rio. And while it wasn’t a national record — the country won 10 in the pool at the boycotted Los Angeles Games in 1984 — it was a reversal of recent form. Not only did all six medals come from women, combine Canada’s results from both genders in the four Olympics that came before Rio and it all added up to a not-so-impressive grand total of five swim medals.
Not that past performance ever guarantees future results. For Oleksiak, Sunday’s performance came in the wake of an uncertain quadrennial, topped by a year’s COVID postponement, that followed her Brazilian breakthrough. In the intervening years, she battled burnout and various injuries, not to mention her long-held dislike for training. (She prefers racing, and says she only came finally embrace the grind of endless practice laps when the pandemic largely took racing away.)
Admittedly overwhelmed by the pressure of the expectation of her newfound stardom, she took a hiatus from the sport in 2018. But Oleksiak rediscovered her form in the lead-up to Tokyo. At the Canadian Olympic trials in Scarborough last month, she reeled off her fastest time since 2016 in beating a stacked field in the 100 free — the signature event in which she won gold in Rio.
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“I’m excited to swim again,” she said in the wake of that win.
On Sunday, she collaborated with a trio of teammates who speak to the waves of talent being produced by Canada, which can no longer count itself as an in-the-water underdog.
“I think it’s a different mindset going into this Games,” Canada coach Ben Titley has said. “Obviously, the underdog mentality was a lot more fun. Whereas fighting people off and trying to hold your ground or trying to achieve more than what you’ve already achieved becomes a little bit more difficult — if we allow it to be.”
If they’re not surprising anyone, they’re still awfully young. Mac Neil, the reigning world champion in the 100 butterfly, who advanced to that event’s final with a third-place finish in Sunday’s semifinal, is 21 years old. Ditto Oleksiak and Smith. Sanchez is 20.
“If we can go in, and a bunch of girls born in 2000 and after can intimidate a bunch of the older girls, it’s pretty fun,” Oleksiak was quoted as saying heading into these Games. “We’re all just going in there with no expectations.”
No expectations before Sunday, perhaps. With Sunday’s clutch performance, the bar has officially been raised.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk
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