TORONTO — Canadian swimming star Penny Oleksiak has a message for every person who reaches out to her on social media: she reads everything.
Still just 17 herself, the four-time Olympic medallist happily shoulders the responsibilities of being a role model, although her popularity can be overwhelming.
“I get kids every day messaging me, and I always want to respond, but I just know that it’s going to break out into a full-on conversation, so I try to refrain from starting up conversations,” Oleksiak said. “But I definitely read through all my DMs, of kids saying ‘Hey, I started swimming,’ or ‘I went to my first meet and I won two gold medals,’ and I always want to reply and say ‘Oh my god, congrats!’
“I definitely read the stories and I love it, and I’m very, very appreciative of people who idolize me.”
Oleksiak, who was among Canada’s biggest stories at the Rio Olympics, was presented with an inaugural Youth Leadership Award by Right To Play on Tuesday night, and in the moments before taking the stage to receive the award from sprint star Andre De Grasse and Right To Play founder Johann Koss, Oleksiak talked about her desire to reach kids.
“I’m very, very passionate about being able to inspire kids, and trying to use my platform as much as I can,” Oleksiak said. “I try my best to use my Twitter, my Instagram and everything just to get the word out, because I know kids are always on their phones, always on social media. If I can get my word out through there, then maybe it will inspire more kids to try and get their word out through social media as well.”
Oleksiak, who has 93,000 Instagram followers, garnered almost 12,000 likes on her most recent post. She’s just shy of 60,000 followers on Twitter.
A tweet last January caught the eye of Toronto Mayor John Tory.
Oleksiak stepped up to defend the city’s public pools amid news that a dozen outdoor pools, along with wading pools and Toronto District School Board pools were slated to be closed as part of the city’s budget process.
The swimmer tweeted: “It’s important to teach kids how to swim… It saves lives and is a good physical activity.”
Tory responded: “Gold medal message received, â†•OleksiakPenny. I’ve asked Budget Chief Gary Crawford to find a way to save these pools.”
“There are so many pools that have closed in Toronto,” Oleksiak said Tuesday night. “It’s something I’m very passionate about, just learning to swim, because it’s something that can save your life. I met a lady a few days ago, and she was like ‘Oh, I don’t know how to swim, and I wish I did know.’ And I told her ‘I don’t care how old you are, you need to learn how to swim, because one day when you’re on a boat and you fall off or something, you need to know how to swim.’
“To see pools close and kids lose the opportunity to go to the pool in summer, or take swim lessons, or start swimming, it kind of breaks my heart.”
Oleksiak changed pools and coaches this season, leaving the high-performance centre in Scarborough and returning to her old coach Bill O’Toole at the Toronto Swim Club downtown. Oleksiak said she’s loving the change, which, among other things has made her schedule more manageable — she avoids the twice-daily trek out to Toronto’s east end for training.
“It’s amazing,” Oleksiak said. “And getting to train with Kylie Masse, who’s a world record-holder, she’s what I’m aspiring to get to. I love that, and I love getting to train with all my friends who I used to train with, and getting to see them every day, and I get to talk to my friends during practice and stuff.
“I also just love being able to go to a school (Blyth Academy, a private high school), where it’s just focus for two hours, a little lunch, and focus for two hours. I’m just really trying to get everything together this year.”