At Rio 2016, Penny Oleksiak won gold in the 100-metre freestyle, silver in the 100-metre butterfly, and two bronzes in the women’s four-by-100 and four-by-200-metre freestyle relays. But right now she’s trying to dominate me in medicine ball tosses and two-foot box jumps. And she’s still winning.
The first Canadian to win four medals in a single Summer Games and the country’s youngest Olympic champion recently turned 18. In a brief return to Toronto to celebrate her birthday and execute some sponsor obligations, I caught up with her for a workout at The Academy of Lions gym on the west side of Toronto.
As we chatted about the fact that she is still at an age where you are excited to celebrate your birthday (I am not) and how her trick to passing the time between swimming reps is singing Drake lyrics as she pops out of the pool, one thing is clear: Oleksiak is still fully enjoying her youth as a teenager even though her sport of choice has forced her to pack on the pounds like a grown up.
With 26-year old freestyler Sandrine Mainville retiring to become a law student at Borden Ladner Gervais in Montreal, there is even more of an onus for Oleksiak to carry the youth movement in Canadian swimming along with Taylor Ruck and Kylie Masse. Most programs wouldn’t be able to stomach the retirement of Mainville and Chantal van Landeghem, two key members of the Olympic team in Rio, in the same year.
Oleksiak’s increase in profile — including being named Canada’s flag-bearer for the Rio closing ceremony and winning the 2016 Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year — has brought more eyeballs and more opportunities. But the biggest change has been her attitude toward weight lifting: in her mind it’s gone from an obligation to an opportunity.
The physical gains she’s made in the gym have led to newfound consistency in the pool.
At the Gainesville Sectional swim meet in the first week of July, Oleksiak swam a 2:12.40 200 fly, which is her third-fastest time ever — just missing her best mark of 2:09.96, which she set last month.
Oleksiak was also one of the three teenagers on the podium in the finals of the women’s 200 fly at the Atlanta Classic earlier in the season.
After a five-medal outing at the Einladung Invitational in Zurich, Oleksiak flew to Sweden for a week-long training camp at the NEC national training centre in Stockholm with elite swimmers Sarah Sjostrom and Michelle Coleman.
At this stage, Oleksiak is looking for new training challenges and trying to push herself by seeking uncomfortable situations. That’s not just referring to the one-legged dynamic movements that are built into her workouts to work all of her stabilizer muscles that give her long limbs the license to operate in the pool. It’s also where she trains, deciding to switch it up from her exclusive training at the University of Toronto over the last year.
The four-time Olympic medalist has moved her training to Gainesville, Fla., for the summer in the hopes of being in a competitive environment with the best male swimmers in the world, including Ryan Lochte.
It’s tough to go in and pump weight every day when the 2020 Olympics are still so far away. So the training program is built to load up for short, attainable goals. Her training is tailored to have her peak for the Pan-Pacific Championships in Tokyo at the end of August. After that, the focus will be on the World Championships in 2019.
Up next is the Canadian Pan Pacs Trials, which will be held from July 18th-22nd.
This is a period where training not just the body but the mind is a chief concern. While training in Florida, she’s also taking online courses to earn her high school degree.
Adrian Lightowler, a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Toronto, has designed her weight program. Key features are keeping her muscles lean, keeping her flexibility high, emphasizing body weight transfer and building in exercises that aren’t just sport-specific but also keep her healthy outside of swimming. ACL injuries are high for young girls for example. Although not a traditional swimming injury, it could occur with just a false step while doing something innocuous like dancing at the many music festivals she tries to attend while living a teenage life. These are things Lightowler worries about and tries to guard against so Oleksiak doesn’t have to.
Which is why it makes sense that Oleksiak is the face of the “I Move Me” Asics campaign. Movement is part of her workouts as she bounces from station to station to the beat of the hip-hop music that blares throughout her high-intensity workout she completes before dipping in the pool for practice.
As she moves closer to the 2020 Olympics and continues to move faster in the pool, the real gains are being made in the gym. If you see Oleksiak on a podium in 2020, the colour of the medals might be the same but the biggest difference will be the notable change in her physical body and the body of work it’s allowed her to achieve.