Seven medals. Two summer games. One title: Canada’s most decorated Olympian.
The rise to fame for Penny Oleksiak has been so meteoric that even the humble swimmer has a hard time wrapping her head around it.
“It’s weird, that’s what I keep saying,” Penny Oleksiak told Global News, laughing and shaking her head. “It’s weird.”
She tweeted after their bronze-medal win, ‘Trust me at the top it isn’t lonely’ — a nod to a lyric by her favourite artist, Drake.
“I was on the podium with girls that I trained with and it was just a moment of, ‘It’s not lonely up there,'” said Oleksiak, explaining what moved her to post the tweet.
“It takes a team, it takes a village … there’s just this element at the centre where everyone is rooting for everyone and we all know that we have a common goal. I think that’s something that you don’t find literally anywhere else in the world. And I think that’s what kind of brings us together.”
The 21-year-old also picked up silver and bronze in the 4 by 100m free relay and women’s 200m freestyle, respectively, adding to the four medals she snagged in Rio as a teen in her Olympic debut five years ago.
And for Oleksiak, the victory is made all the sweeter by the adversity she had overcome.
First, there were the injuries.
“I had, like, a pretty bad back injury, like a herniated disc and arthritis and like a pinched nerve in my lower back, so there was a long period of time where, like, I couldn’t really train at all,” said Oleksiak.
Then, of course, a world-stopping pandemic.
“We were out of the water for four months. It kind of forced me to have to come to terms with the fact that I’m a person outside of swimming,” said Oleksiak.
But the swimming sensation is not new to challenges, taking to Twitter recently to thank her teacher in high school who told her to focus on school because “swimming wouldn’t get her anywhere.”
“I was preparing to make the Olympic team in 2016 and I was really training hard, I was, like, not taking many classes in school,” Oleksiak told Global News, recounting the story.
“I had one class where my teacher pulled me aside and they told me, you’re going to have to get to a point where you’re going to have to choose, it’s either going to be school or swimming … and I just remember going home and telling my parents, and being like, ‘My teacher told me I have to choose’.
“And they were like, why do you have to choose?”
From that moment, Oleksiak said she learned a lesson that she strives to pass on to others.
“One piece of advice that I always try to get across is just not to listen to people that are telling you not to do things … because, if you love it, you’re going to be good at it no matter what, because you’re going to put everything you can into it. And so just go for it. Just get it done.”
‘Get it done’. It’s something Oleksiak says she has been able to do for her country seven times over, because of how much Canada has given to her.
“I could come in 8th and Canadians would still be like, ‘Good job Penny!’, like, ‘You killed it!’, you know what I mean?” said Oleksiak. “It’s so nice just having that peace of mind knowing that there is so much support behind our Canadian athletes and so much love, which is amazing.”
So where does the most decorated athlete of Canada’s over 120-year Olympic history go from here? More podiums in the future, perhaps?
Oleksiak says yes.
“I love being able to be a role model for kids and to tell people to pursue their passions.”