Q&A: Penny Oleksiak on the honour, pressure of being an Olympic medal hopeful

Canada's Penny Oleksiak competes during the 2017 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary. (Darko Bandic/AP)

“How about an encore?” That’s not what Penny Oleksiak is trying to hear. But that’s all she’s heard for the last four — no, scratch that — five years in between Olympic cycles.

Oleksiak’s first major international swim meet was the 2016 Rio Olympics, when she was 16. Everything was a fairy tale as she became Canada’s youngest Olympic champion and won more medals at a single Olympics than any other Canadian ever. She became the flag bearer at the closing ceremonies and Canada’s darling.

But soon every media appearance, every endorsement engagement, was all about how she’d top that feat in Tokyo. So much for being able to enjoy your youth. The pressure mounted and she eventually pulled out of the 2018 Pan Pacific Swimming Championship to focus on herself and get away from a sport that suddenly felt far more like work than play.

The lead-up to Tokyo has continually been stop-start as delayed trials and interrupted training has meant her preparation has been far from ideal. But it came with a silver lining.

Oleksiak now says she’s in a better place mentally and physically than she would have been if the Games had happened on schedule a year ago. And she’s found herself grateful for this new opportunity even if it comes with the same expectations.

I caught up with Oleksiak before she left Toronto for Tokyo to find out how she manages it all.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

SPORTSNET: Last time I saw you, I was training with you. You dominated me back when we were allowed to work out with other people. I'm sure now you’re in much better shape. I’m in much worse shape. What has this period been like training in the middle of a pandemic?

Penny Oleksiak: It’s definitely been a little bit different than what we’re used to. We haven’t been able to travel at all or race very much. We’ve only had two real competitions. It’s definitely taken a little bit of adjustment. But I think it’ll make me stronger for the summer, I hope.

What is your level of preparation this summer like in relation to last summer, if the Games would have happened last year?

I feel almost as if I’m more prepared now than I was last year. It’s weird to say, but I think having that time off and really just figuring out my priorities and where my focus is in the last year [was helpful]. I’ve been bettering myself a lot as a person and as an athlete, and really been trying to work hard in and out of the pool. It honestly helped me a little bit more and made me stronger this year.

You took a break in [2018]. Why was that necessary?

At that point I had hit a wall with everything. I was really frustrated, and I wasn’t really getting any better. I could have put in so many hours of training, and I just didn’t have the motivation or the willpower to really push myself. It was almost necessary for me to have that break in a year where the competitions aren’t that big of a deal.

I think it worked for me. And I think even during COVID — when we had our break there — it honestly helped me.

Was that frustration based off of your own expectations or expectations everyone from the outside had on you?

I think it's a mix. I think there was definitely a lot of pressure from the outside, even though there were a lot of people saying, “We’re going to support you no matter what.” I kind of put that pressure on myself of, like, “I can't lose. I can't ever have a bad race. I always need to be on top.” And it really gets to you after a while. Nothing became really good enough for me at that point.

I was just always disappointed in every race I had or every training session I had. I could never really give myself any positive feedback. So that’s something I've been working on a lot.

What did you do during that period to get to this point?

I took some time off with COVID, and I’ve really been working with a lot of people and trying to get that confidence back that I had before Rio, and really just getting back to the same mindset I was in before then.

I’d say family and friends played a big role in my life. My friends are honestly like my family, and I really go to a lot of my friends for support. Also having my family behind me, telling me that they’re supporting me through stuff. My family was behind me telling me, “You need this break. Go to St. Lucia,” because I really rely on the opinions of the people around me, and I really value that.

Some of your friends are pretty high profile. I don’t have Bianca Andreescu in the group chat — you do. What’s it like having someone who’s going through similar things to be able to talk to?

It’s really nice. She’s very chill, so I can honestly just message her whenever and tell her, “I’m so annoyed about this right now,” and we can literally have a 10-minute conversation about it and not talk for like three more weeks. And then she can message me saying she’s annoyed about something, and we talk about it.

It’s really nice to have that person that you can message, and you honestly don’t really need to have any context behind it, but you both kind of understand what you’re both going through.

You also can message the greatest swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps. You’re representing his brand, but you guys also have a relationship. What’s the support from him like?

He’s really great. Knowing that he’s kind of in my corner and knowing that I get to represent his brand, it always motivates me. And I think also having the ability to reach out to him and ask him for advice is obviously a huge thing, especially for a swimmer. I’m super grateful for him.

He and I just relate on a lot of levels, which is really awesome. He came out for swimming in the United States, and he became a pretty big deal there. And I think after 2016, I was a pretty big name in swimming in Canada, and it was pretty overwhelming for me. So we had a lot to relate to on that. He’s just really awesome and he’s really understanding.

“Pretty big name” is the understatement of the year. You were the most decorated athlete coming out of a Summer Olympics. Are there people who are excited for you, but are saying, “We expect a similar result”?

I think everyone’s kind of expecting that at this point. Every time I leave an interview or something like that I hear, “I’m excited to see [you] bring home more golds,” and stuff. I’ve honestly learned to just tune that out. At the end of the day, I’m going to race as hard as I can. And people telling me to bring home more gold is honestly more stressful than it is encouraging sometimes, even though I appreciate it.

You’re getting support, obviously, from fans in a different way. Virtually some of your partnerships are allowing you to connect with fans.

It’s super awesome. I have some of the best partnerships and I’m literally not just saying that because they’re my partners. I’ve really narrowed it down, and especially in the last year, narrowed it down to partners that really know how to work with athletes, and they know how to help athletes, which I love. RBC athletes are going to be taking photos in the village and of our travels and everything while we’re in Tokyo. And I’m really excited that they’re doing that. We kind of get to show [what it’s like] behind the scenes.... So hopefully I can get some good photos. I’m not the best photographer. But we’ll see.

Social media is a way that you've been able to be social with your fans and young girls looking up to. Has it been important for you to be pretty authentic with what the journey has been like and what you’ve been going through?

I’m definitely an open book. If anyone really asked me about anything, I’ll talk about it. I don’t care. I feel like it would be really difficult for me to lie about things because I would not be able to keep that straight with training and everything....

I don’t want to show everyone all my struggles — I have competitors that are watching. But I definitely like to talk about it and let people know that I’m here as a voice. I’m here to show you kind of what my day-to-day is like.

What are you most looking forward to about the challenge of going to another Olympics?

Just racing on the world stage again. I think in Canada, we haven’t really had a lot of opportunities to get on that world stage and race against really fast athletes. And although we have a really good lineup here and we have a lot of strong swimmers, I think we’re all kind of craving that competition and we’re all kind of craving the fight.

Do you think the Canadian team is being slept on a little bit because you haven’t been in a big meet?

Honestly, I kind of hope so. I kind of want to show up in Tokyo and people don’t know what to expect. We have a really young team. I think when we go to world meets and we’re medaling or almost beating bigger countries, then it scares people a little bit.

You’re going to the Olympics and you’re representing Canada, and the country has gone through a tough period. Like you, too, some Canadians have been struggling a bit. What would you say to them to help them get through the other side?

I’d say just take it day by day and you can’t really be 100 per cent every single day. I think that’s the lesson I’ve learned recently, is just take it day by day, enjoy it while you can.

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