Person of interest: Swimming Canada’s best-kept secret, Penny Oleksiak

Canada's Penny Oleksiak. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The first time people really heard about Penny Oleksiak was back in April, when she qualified for multiple events—and set a couple of national records as well as one world junior record—at Olympic trials. She was a phenom, but surely she wasn’t a medal threat at the 2016 Olympic Games? Well, yes, actually she was. And still is. Here’s the 411 on Canada’s new swimming star.

Penny Oleksiak
Age: 16
Height: 6-1
Weight: 149 lb.
Hometown: Toronto

Olympic medals: Silver, 100-metre butterfly; Bronze, 4×100-metre freestyle relay

A steady ascent

You may wonder why Oleksiak’s name didn’t come up at the 2015 Pan Am Games. It’s because she wasn’t there—she didn’t make the cut. But she did head to the FINA World Junior Swimming Championships in Singapore later that summer and she did take home six medals, including silvers in the 100-metre freestyle and the 50- and 100-metre butterfly. She started training with senior team competitors at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre in September, and by late winter she was there pretty much full-time, swimming daily from 7–10 a.m. and then again from 3–6 p.m. Her coach, Ben Titley, knew he had a special talent on his hands, but Swimming Canada underplayed Oleksiak’s potential ahead of Rio, not wanting her to feel too much pressure. She didn’t, seemingly, though she surely had a hunch how well she might do. “I think it’s going to be pretty surprising in Rio to see what happens,” she said in a pre-Olympics interview with the CBC.

How does school work?

Oleksiak is a student at Monarch Park Collegiate in Toronto, but since February, she has been studying online so she can focus on swimming. In the fall, she’ll return to “regular” school, which she says she has missed. She swims for Monarch Park, too, and while the competition doesn’t challenge her, she finds it really fun to be on that team. “A lot of people [there] are super supportive of me,” she says.

What’s her best event?

Good question. She looked pretty good doing the butterfly over the weekend, but she also posted a faster time in the anchor leg of the 4×100-metre freestyle relay final than Katie Ledecky did for the U.S., swimming her two laps in 52.72 as compared to Ledecky’s 52.79. (The Americans finished ahead of Canada by a full second.) Above all, Oleksiak is a sprinter. “The 100-free is pretty exciting but I like the 100-fly, too,” she says. “They’re both pretty fast and you don’t really know what’s going to happen ’cause it come down to hundredths of a second.” Oleksiak currently holds the national records in both those events—53.31 and 56.46 respectively (current world records are 52.06 and 55.48).

What’s next?

Oleksiak is scheduled to swim in three more events in Rio, including the 100-metre free, which gets started Wednesday. She also qualified for the 4×200 freestyle relay and the 4×100 IM relay, so we may be watching her through to the end of the swimming competition. But this is just the beginning. As Ryan Cochrane, the face of Canada’s swimming program, contemplates retirement, that mantle might just be Oleksiak’s to take up for Tokyo 2020. And then, again, in 2024, when she’ll be 24 years old, and likely in peak form.