Oleksiak: 'Weird realization' being Canada’s most decorated Olympian

Penny Oleksiak, Canada's most decorated Olympian, joined Tim & Friends to talk about the pressures of being an athlete in 2021 and what it was like training for the Olympics during a pandemic.

Penny Oleksiak is still adjusting to life as Canada’s most decorated Olympian.

The 21-year-old from Toronto surpassed Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen with a record seventh medal after claiming bronze in the 4 x 100-metre medley at the Tokyo Games last month.

Oleksiak also earned silver in the 4 x 100-metre freestyle and another bronze in the 200-metre freestyle during her time in Tokyo to add to her collection of four medals from the 2016 Rio Games.

“Yeah, no it’s definitely pretty odd,” Oleksiak said Friday on Lead Off with Mike Zigomanis and Scott MacArthur. “When I really think about it and realize that it’s actually me, it’s a weird realization that I always have every time.”

Oleksiak had a sensational Olympic debut as a 16-year-old in Rio winning gold in the 100-metre freestyle, silver in the 100-metre butterfly plus bronze medals in the 4 x 100-metre and 4 x 200-metre freestyle events. She said the biggest differences between those Olympics and the most recent Games was her mentality heading into Tokyo and the challenges of preparing during the COVID-19 pandemic, which postponed the 2020 Olympic Games by a year.

“I kind of knew what I was doing a little bit more, I had raced on the world stage a lot more, so it was a bit more familiar to me,” she said. “I think the other thing was it just being during COVID and having to adjust to that and there were so many things that were different about this Olympics that we kind of had to be flexible with and make adjustments with.”

Oleksiak said she was out of the water for four months during the pandemic, which is "pretty much unheard of for swimmers" as they typically only miss two weeks. She credits her coaches and her teammates as they navigated through the uncharted waters en route to Tokyo.

“I feel like our coaches were really good in the sense of like they kind of knew what they were doing almost," Oleksiak said. "As soon as we came back they knew exactly when to start training us hard again, how to build us back into training and they really kept us motivated throughout the season. I think it was just a whole collective team thing because we were all super motivated, pushing each other day in and day out and I think if we didn’t have the team we had it could have gone really poorly.”

Oleksiak has taken some time off post-Tokyo attending the U.S. Open in New York and has been impressed with the play of Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez, who is on a dream run heading into the women’s final.

“She’s been playing like super amazing,” Oleksiak said. “I don’t really know her personally but ... for me, how you carry yourself as an athlete is such a big thing, so just watching her being like 18-just-turned-19 and how she carries herself on the court is so just impressive to me.”

Oleksiak is looking forward to diving back into the pool with the Paris Olympics only three years away — and the potential to add to her historic haul — although she is taking a more cautious approach this time around.

“I think I’m so, so, so excited for the future right now but I think at the same time I’ve learned from 2016 as to how I need to set myself up to be prepared to train again for something like that,” she said. “After 2016 I didn’t really take the break that I think I needed to take and it kind of hurt me a little bit, the couple years after the Olympics. Now I’m so excited to get back into training but I have to pull myself back a little bit and realize that if I want to be really good in three years I have to take a little break right now. I’m just so excited to get back in the water and train again.”

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