“I don’t have a lot of time. I have a test tomorrow I need to study for,” Olympic gold medalist Penny Oleksiak said after winning the Lou Marsh Award for Canada’s top athlete on Tuesday afternoon.
The 16-year-old high school student took home four medals at the Rio Olympics in August including a gold medal in the 100-metre Freestyle. She has now become the youngest recipient of Canada’s highest athletic honour, finishing ahead of two-time award winner Sidney Crosby and Olympic sprinter Andre De Grasse in voting. Past winners of the award include Steve Nash, Wayne Gretzky, and Mike Weir, and Maurice Richard.
“I’ve always looked up to Sidney Crosby [….] I remember at book fairs I used to buy posters of him,” Oleksiak said. “I was just excited to be on the list, let alone win.”
She was sitting in law class when she heard the exciting news.
“The first thing I told my teacher when I walked into the class was that I would be on my phone and that I was just watching out for something,” Oleksiak said. “She called me out a few times […] but it was pretty exciting when I found out.”
Despite her remarkable achievements, Oleksiak says she isn’t paying attention to scholarships or sponsorships opportunities.
“I’m just focused on being in high school and swimming,” she said.
Trying to balance work and swim competitions is hard enough for the young swimmer. Her daily routine is rigorous, starting with early morning swims at 6 a.m. before school, which starts at 10:30 a.m. After school, she heads back to the pool where she trains until around 7 p.m.
“Then I do homework, sometimes, depending [on] if I’m tired or not,” Oleksiak joked.
Although she might miss an assignment or two, Oleksiak continues to amaze in the pool. She helped lead the Canadian women to a pair of relay golds at the 2016 FINA World Swimming Championships in Windsor this month. Though she is now a household name in Canada, when she first arrived at Rio, she was just there to enjoy the moment.
“We certainly went into the [Olympics] just hoping for good performances as a learning experience,” Canadian swimming Coach Ben Titley said. “We knew […] Penny was very capable, but to get the first three medals probably changed the expectations.”
By the day of the 100-metre Freestyle race, Oleksiak was beginning to feel the pressure.
“She was very aware that [no Canadian] had won four medals in a single [Summer Olympic] games,” Titley said. “I think that was one of the biggest expectations she was feeling the day of the race [….] I think she knew she had what it took to be competitive and once you know that, it’s all about just executing your race on the day and that’s something she did very well.”
With the weight of a country on her shoulders, Oleksiak overcame a slow start to the race, closing the gap in the final 25 metres to capture gold. However, for Coach Titley, that wasn’t what impressed him the most about his young racer.
“For me, the most poignant thing was […] the 25 seconds after the race finished,” Titley said. “Penny doesn’t actually turn around and look at the scoreboard to see what the result is [….] That’s something I’ve never seen from any athlete [….] To touch the wall, and tell herself that […] ‘Whatever is on that scoreboard, when I turn around, I’m happy with the result and I gave my best effort,’ […] I think that that is probably one of the most telling examples of what makes Penny who she is.”
When Oleksiak did see the scoreboard, she was speechless.
“When I turn and touch the wall, I usually just catch my breath,” Oleksiak said. “I just try to tell myself that I’m happy with what I did, as long as I know I put 100 per cent into the race [….] Then, 20 seconds later, I turned around and being able to see number one on the board […] it's kind of an unreal feeling.”
Despite having an Olympic gold and a Lou Marsh Award to her name, Oleksiak has little time to celebrate. Tomorrow, she’ll be in class writing her exam and preparing for her next competition.
“If I'm lucky, I'll get some cake at dinner,” she said.