Surprising normalcy of Oleksiak made her story resonate with Canadians

Penny Oleksiak pictured outside Monarch Park Collegiate, her high school. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

Penny Oleksiak is our best idea.

The idea, that is, of a 12-year-old with immense potential in a sport running into the right coach, and then ultimately fitting into a national program that four years later lifted that athlete to be elite for Canada at an international level. At the same time, the athlete stays in his or her community, attends the local public school while living at home and retaining the footprints of a normal teenager’s life.

Just about perfect for the way most level-headed parents of Canadian children with an interest in sport can imagine it coming together for that child. Just about perfect for the child with sporting ambition.

That’s part of the reason, as Oleksiak’s tale played out this summer and climaxed with four medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, that her story seemed to resonate with Canadians. Yes, it was about her good cheer, her youthful exuberance, her joyfulness, her family, her ability to be both star and teammate at the same time.

It was also about making history, about being 16-years-old and doing something no Canadian Olympic athlete, let alone any 16-year-old Olympic athlete, had done before.

But at the end, it was her pure normalness, as least as far as those of us peering in from the outside could determine, and the sense she’s just a regular teenager that really made us like this athlete, this young woman.

When she was sitting in her Grade 11 class at Monarch Park Collegiate Institute in the east end of Toronto looking at her Twitter feed and saw she’d been named the winner of the 2016 Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year, she turned to her friend Duncan and whispered, “I got the ‘W!’”

Asked what perk she received since Rio that meant the most to her, she said, “free pizza.” Asked what her brother James, a defenceman with the Dallas Stars, had texted to her when he learned she’d won the Lou Marsh, she said he wrote, “Congratulations, loser.”

So many stories in 2016, sports and otherwise, seemed ridiculous to the point you could honestly say, you couldn’t make this stuff up. So many extraordinary athletes, Canadian and otherwise, did extraordinary things in ’16, but many of those seemed talented beyond our imagination and living lives that, even as teenagers, seemed anything but what most of us would consider normal. Specialized schools, agents with training regimens, programs that take them south or overseas to get what some believe they can’t get at home.

About Oleksiak, then, it also almost seemed you really couldn’t make this stuff up, at least not in 2016, because it seemed like she’d been plucked out of a kids sports novel from the 1950s. It was as if she could have been a character in Scott Young’s Scrubs on Skates, albeit with constant access to social media.

This, undoubtedly, will change, just as her world will change as she gets a little older, as she makes decisions about her swimming career, and as we hurtle towards the next Summer Games in 2020. But for now, for 2016, Oleksiak was able to stand above the rest of a pretty formidable crowd of Canadian athletes and say she was the best, and probably the most loved by the Canadian public.

When it came to the prestigious Lou Marsh Trophy, she outdistanced the great Sidney Crosby, and all he’d done was win the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the World Cup, and he also had himself on a 70-goal pace for this season when the voting was held.

But Oleksiak got more votes than Sid the Kid. She also got more votes than Andre De Grasse, Derek Drouin, Brooke Henderson, Milos Raonic and many other Olympic and professional athletes. When you look at the accomplishments of all those athletes, you can easily wonder why they didn’t win. De Grasse was also a star in Rio. Drouin won gold in the high jump. Brooke Henderson won a golf major on the LPGA tour, the same accomplishment that had once earned Mike Weir the Lou Marsh. And Raonic finished the year at No. 3 on the ATP tour, the highest ranking ever for a Canadian male or female.

But none could touch Penny.

She set a tone in Rio, both for the swim team, and for the Canadian Olympic team in general. Some Canadian athletes had decided not to compete because of fears surrounding the Zika virus, but that appeared not to even cross Oleksiak’s radar.

Nobody had known quite what to expect from her at her first Olympics, and so her silver medal in the butterfly and two bronze medal efforts in relay races left one and all thrilled by her over-achievements. But then came the 100-metre freestyle, and a brilliant, daring comeback effort that seemed impossible in a race that short – she was seventh after 50 metres – and then came her touch at the wall at exactly the same second as American Simone Manuel for gold and an Olympic record that put her over the top and etched her name in the memory banks of the millions of Canadians who love the Olympics.

“I think I really learned than I’m stronger than I think,” she has said.

Along with De Grasse (22 years old), Henderson (19) and Connor McDavid (19), Oleksiak is the youngest of a truly remarkable generation of Canadian athletes coming through the system and on to the world stage. We’ve had such phenoms before but never before a group like this, all with potential to be the best in the world at their very different sports at the same time.

We’ll see how it unfolds in the coming years. All make us believe Canada can be home to athletes wanting to be the best, that they don’t have to go elsewhere to be able to compete, and that in doing so they’ll ultimately retain what we like to call their Canadian-ness.

Oleksiak surely did that in Rio. And her country surely loved her for it.

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