RIO DE JANEIRO – Penny Oleksiak’s nickname “Typical Pen” is also her Instagram handle. Her talent in the pool is anything but typical.
There being not much demand for a six-foot-two gymnast, Oleksiak made the right call switching to swimming at the age of nine. The 16-year-old Toronto teen moves a lot of water with her long limbs.
Oleksiak has emerged at the Summer Games in Rio as Canadian swimming’s Next One.
Her Olympic debut has included lowering her own world junior record in the 100-metre butterfly, punching her ticket to Sunday’s final in that race and anchoring the freestyle relay team to a bronze medal.
Having never raced a world championship, Pan American Games or Commonwealth Games before, the Olympics are essentially Oleksiak’s first senior meet.
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“I’m really happy with how I’ve done so far,” she said.
Oleksiak is also one of Canada’s busier swimmers in Rio with two relays and a pair of individual races on her plate.
She’ll race the 200-metre freestyle relay Wednesday and the 100 free Thursday, but isn’t worried about fatigue.
“I’m only 16 so I just don’t get as much lactic acid,” she said. “When I was age-group racing I had maybe five minutes between races.”
There is a freedom that comes with being an unknown quantity in your first Olympic Games. Oleksiak is racing unburdened of expectations.
“She’s just been so amazing keeping her composure and not letting anything get to her head and staying focused,” teammate Michelle Williams said.
Oleksiak’s father Richard was a multi-sport athlete and mother Alison a swimmer. Six-foot-seven brother Jamie is a Dallas Stars defenceman and five-foot-ten sister Hayley a Northeastern University rower.
The youngest Oleksiak estimates she’s grown a couple inches in just the last year. Training can be hard when muscles are catching up to a sprouting body.
Oleksiak is genetically “gifted more than most people,” her coach Ben Titley said after her breakout performance at April trials.
“We just kind of need to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves on expectations for her,” Titley said then. “That’s not to put limits on her. She can always swim to her maximum.”
Oleksiak trains alongside older relay teammates Chantal Van Landeghem, Williams and Sandrine Mainville at the Pan Am Centre in Toronto.
“Having her around the other athletes who are very professional, very mature and nice girls, (they) go around to her house to help her with her homework at school for example,” Titley said.
“If she’s flunking, they’ll grab her and say ‘no, you’re coming to our house to study today because if you’re not studying, your mom’s not going to let you train and then Ben will go nuts.”‘
Oleksiak confirmed if her grades slip, Alison would put the brakes on training. Mainville helps her with French and Van Landeghem “basically everything because she’s so smart,” Oleksiak said.
Oleksiak leads a typical teenage life outside the pool “always on Instagram.”