Penny Oleksiak Wins Canada’s First Gold Medal in Rio, Cementing Her Star in Olympic History
RIO DE JANEIRO — On the weekend, when she started on what quickly turned into an epic Olympic journey, Penny Oleksiak became Canada’s darling, a teen sensation to capture a nation.
On Thursday night at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium, it was time to share her with the world.
Not only did the 16-year-old Toronto swimmer win her fourth medal of these Rio Games, the Penny is now pure gold as she set an Olympic record in winning the women’s 100-metre freestyle.
And what a show it was. After hitting the wall seventh at 50 metres, she rocketed off the turn and mowed down the competition, including world-record holder Cate Campbell of Australia. Her time of 52:70 put her in a dead heat with Simone Manuel of the U.S., who also collected gold.
But now with four medals — including a full gold, silver, bronze set and the possibility of an incredible fifth in a relay on Saturday — she is officially the breakout young star of these Games, regardless of sport, regardless of sex.
The gold medal made Oleksiak Canada’s most accomplished Summer Olympics athlete, the first to win four medals in one Games. She also became the first Canadian swimmer to win gold since Mark Tewskbury in 1992.
“I definitely knew the pressure was on to kind of make history and get four medals but it wasn’t something I was trying to think about before my race,” Oleksiak said. “I was just trying to think about swimming as fast as I could and to be happy with whatever outcome.
“I never thought I’d win a gold medal.”
The outcome, like the gold, is spectacular, Canada’s first trip to the podium in these Games, already matching the lone golden moment from London four years ago.
The historic nature of the win was dizzying. Oleksiak became the youngest Olympic champion ever from Canada and became one of four women from these Games to complete a full set of medals. The Toronto high schooler also became the first athlete born after Jan. 1, 2000 to win an Olympic gold medal.
She did it in breathtaking fashion too, displaying the kick she had already shown in almost each of her races in this memorable week. While close to the back at the 50-metre wall, she launched like a torpedo off of it and kept it going in her swim for glory.
“My tactic was the last 50 metres, put your head down and swim as fast as you can,” Oleksiak said. “I didn’t really know I had tied until a few minutes after.”
During her medal ceremony, Oleksiak soaked it up quietly and with little emotion, barely mouthing the words to the Canadian anthem. It was like the youngster didn’t know what hit her.
But don’t let the kid in her fool you, the one you see in that smile on her almost nightly trips to the medal podium and on the front pages of your newspaper. Once her 6-foot-1 body is submerged in the Olympics, she becomes a force — a machine the likes of which Canadian swimming has never seen before.
No one should be so foolish as to compare Oleksiak to Michael Phelps, but as Olympic debuts go, it is one of the most successful in the history of the Games. Remember that as a 15-year-old at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, Phelps was just dipping his toe in the Olympic water and left with a fifth-place finish as his best effort.
And now the rest of the world will take notice of the young Canadian, her four medals ranking among the most impressive debuts for a young athlete in Olympic history.
On Thursday, Oleksiak lined up in a spot few would have been able to imagine before this meet began. With a favourable Lane 5, thanks to her blistering 52.72 time in Wednesday’s semi-final, she had world record holders on her left (Austrailian Cate Campbell) and right (Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden.)
Any sense that she would be intimidated by such an assignment went awash earlier in the week, in particular in Wednesday’s semi-final when she went fingernail-to-fingernail and toe-to-toe with the Aussie great Campbell. Oleksiak’s time in that race destroyed her own Canadian record and was .01 off the Olympic record, set by Campbell in that very race.
Suddenly, a Canadian kid who wondered back in April whether she would even make her country’s Olympic team, has served notice to the rest of the world.
The success Oleksiak has had has become as contagious to her teammates as her smile.
“Penny is contributing to this,” said Katerine Savard of Montreal, who was part of the 4×200 metre relay on Wednesday. “It makes everyone really excited. She is actually amazing. She is putting swimming to another level and to be part of this is amazing.”
One of the few veterans on the Canadian team at age 23, Savard is in awe.
“She is big and strong and mentally strong,” Savard said. “She has everything going for her. When I was 16 I wasn’t muscular. She is more advanced for her age.”
By virtue of the medals alone, Oleksiak is easily the darling Canadian of these Games thus far, a status almost certain to stand and put a flag in her hand for the closing ceremony.
Like so many kids her age, an Oleksiak lifeline is social media. And as much love as she is getting from Canadians coast-to-coast, the sweet 16-year-old is just as keen to give it back on.
“I have honestly loved every second of being here in Rio,” Oleksiak wrote on Thursday on her Instagram account, punctuated with a heart emoji. “And it’s still not over yet! Thank-you to everyone in Canada who has watched me and supported me!! I will do my best to keep making you guys proud.”