Penelope “Penny” Oleksiak, swimmer (born 13 June 2000 in Scarborough, ON). Swimmer Penny Oleksiak is Canada’s most decorated Olympian, with seven medals overall. She also holds the record as the youngest Canadian to win Olympic gold (16 years and 59 days). In 2016, she became the first Canadian athlete to win four medals at a single Olympic Summer Games: gold in the 100 m freestyle; silver in the 100 m butterfly; bronze in the women’s 4x100 m freestyle relay; and bronze in the women’s 4x200 m freestyle relay. Oleksiak won three medals at the Tokyo Games in 2021: silver in the women’s 4x100 m freestyle relay; bronze in the women’s 200 m freestyle; and bronze in the women’s 4x100 m medley relay. She received the Lou Marsh Trophy and the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award in 2016.
Penny Oleksiak is the youngest of five children (including brothers Jake and Jamie and sisters Hayley and Claire) in the family of engineer Alison Oleksiak and writer Richard Oleksiak.
The Oleksiak family is very athletic. Richard, who is 6-foot-9 and of Polish background, played football and basketball and competed in track and field at Nichols School in Buffalo, New York. Alison was a high-performance swimmer in her native Scotland. (See also Scottish Canadians.) Sister Hayley was a competitive rower at Northeastern University in Boston. Jake played NCAA hockey with the University at Buffalo while Jamie won a bronze medal with Team Canada at the 2012 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. He went on to join the Dallas Stars and Seattle Kraken of the National Hockey League as a defenceman.
Early Swimming Career
Penny Oleksiak learned to swim at age nine in a neighbour’s backyard pool. When she told her parents that she enjoyed swimming, they encouraged her to swim competitively. She first tried out for the Toronto Swim Club and the Scarborough Swim Club but was rejected from both because she had difficulty swimming the required two lengths of the pool.
However, she did not give up, joining the Olympian Swimming Club at Scarborough’s Midland Pool, which was open to beginners. Swim coach Gary Nolden was impressed with Penny’s approach to swimming. “[S]he picked up stuff very quickly,” Nolden told CBC News in 2016. She was also growing quickly. “Every time she swam she got faster. Every time she showed up at the pool, she was an inch taller,” he told Maclean’s.
Breaking Youth Records
By age 12, Oleksiak was training out of the Toronto Swim Club under head coach Bill O’Toole. In 2013, she set an Ontario record for 11- to 12-year-old girls in the 100 m backstroke, with a time of 1:07.04.
That year, Oleksiak drew the attention of Ben Titley, who had just become head coach of the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre – Ontario. (Titley was part of the coaching staff for Great Britain’s Olympic swim team at three consecutive Olympic Summer Games from 2004 to 2012.) As Titley later told Maclean’s, “It was her size, her limb length, the way she just moved through the water.”
At the 2014 Canadian Age Group Championships in Winnipeg, Oleksiak was dominant; she won eight gold medals and 13 medals overall. The following year, she broke four Canadian age group records (13–14 years) in the female 50 m freestyle (25.72 seconds), 100 m freestyle (55.28 seconds), 100 m butterfly (1:00.03) and 200 m butterfly (2:15.05). She also set an Ontario age group record in the female 200 m freestyle (2:01.41).
Oleksiak made her international debut with the Canadian swim team at the 2015 Australian Age Group Championships. In the 14-year-old category, Oleksiak won five gold medals, one silver and two bronze. She failed to make Team Canada for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. But she did compete at the 2015 FINA World Junior Swimming Championships in Singapore. Despite breaking her elbow just over one month before the championships, Oleksiak won six medals, including gold in the mixed 4x100 m freestyle relay.
2016 Olympic Games
At 15 years old, the 6-foot-2 Oleksiak was the youngest Canadian swimmer to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. She had a strong season leading up to the Games; she won the gold medal in the women’s 100 m freestyle at both an event in Charlotte, North Carolina, and at another in Canet-en-Roussillon, France. The Rio Olympics was her first major international event, so few people expected Oleksiak to win any medals. Overall, expectations were not high for the Canadian swim team. Sports Illustrated predicted they would win zero medals.
However, the team surpassed expectations, taking six medals at the Games. Oleksiak entered the history books by winning four medals — the most ever won by a Canadian at a single Olympic Summer Games. She won gold in the women’s 100 m freestyle, where she tied an Olympic record (with American Simone Manuel) with a time of 52.70 seconds. This made Oleksiak the first Olympic gold medallist born in the 2000s as well as the youngest Canadian to win Olympic gold (16 years and 59 days). She also took silver in the women’s 100 m butterfly (setting a world junior record time of 56.46 seconds) and bronze in both the women’s 4x100 m freestyle relay (with Michelle Williams, Taylor Ruck, Sandrine Mainville and Chantal Van Landeghem) and the women’s 4x200 m freestyle relay (with Ruck, Katerine Savard and Brittany MacLean). In recognition of her record-breaking performance, Oleksiak was named Canada’s flag bearer for the closing ceremonies.
In December 2016, Oleksiak won four medals at the World Short Course Swimming Championships in Windsor, Ontario. (In short course competitions, the length of the pool is 25 m instead of 50 m.) She took gold in the women’s 4x50 m freestyle relay and in the women’s 4x200 m freestyle relay, silver in the women’s 4x100 m medley relay and bronze in the women’s 100 m freestyle. At the 2017 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Oleksiak won bronze in the 4x100 m mixed freestyle relay and in the 4x100 m mixed medley relay.
Mental Health Struggles
In 2017, Oleksiak suffered a concussion and injured her shoulder. She was unable to win an individual swimming medal throughout the year and took some time away from the pool following the 2018 Commonwealth Games. During this time, she also endured the death of her grandmother.
Oleksiak’s mother Alison believed Penny was “getting overwhelmed” and needed a break. According to Sportsnet, Oleksiak experienced a fear of losing. She felt the pressure of always winning when being announced as an Olympic champion. Among the people Oleksiak contacted to help her deal with anxiety was American swimming legend Michael Phelps, a well-known mental health advocate. According to Penny’s sister, Hayley, the time away from the sport helped Oleksiak grow mentally and get “a revived passion for the sport again.”
Return to Competitive Swimming
When Oleksiak returned to high-performance competitive swimming, she achieved success in team events. At the 2019 World Aquatics Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Oleksiak swam on the teams that won bronze medals in the women’s 4x100 m freestyle relay, the women’s 4x200 m freestyle relay, and the women’s 4x100 m medley relay. In the process, Oleksiak tied Kylie Masse of Windsor, Ontario, for the most medals won by a Canadian woman at the World Aquatics Championships.
In 2019, Oleksiak was part of Team Energy Standard, which won the inaugural International Swimming League Grand Final in Las Vegas. Her teammates included fellow Canadians Kayla Sanchez and Rebecca Smith.
2020 Olympic Summer Games
The 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo were delayed one full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Oleksiak had more time to prepare and be in elite form. She came away with three Olympic medals: silver in the women’s 4x100 m freestyle relay (with Sanchez, Smith, Maggie Mac Neil and Taylor Ruck of Kelowna); bronze in the women’s 4x100 m medley relay (with Masse, Mac Neil, Ruck, Sanchez and Sydney Pickrem); and bronze in the women’s 200 m freestyle. This made Oleksiak Canada’s most decorated Olympian ever, with seven medals overall.
The silver medal in the women’s 4x100 m freestyle relay was especially notable because the Canadian team beat the United States by.03 seconds to take silver. It was Oleksiak’s outstanding time of 52.26 seconds that proved to be the difference maker for Canada.
Oleksiak is an ambassador for WE Charity (formerly Free the Children). (See also Craig Kielburger.) In January 2017, Oleksiak helped launch the “WE are Canada” program designed to help students “explore Canadian issues, build leadership skills and create an action plan to help them shape the future of Canada and the world.”