Penny Oleksiak is the youngest child of engineer Alison Oleksiak and her husband, writer Richard Oleksiak. She has four siblings: Jamie, Hayley, stepbrother Jake and stepsister Claire.
The family is very athletic. Richard (who is six feet nine inches or 2.06 m tall) played football and basketball and competed in track and field (athletics) at Nichols School in Buffalo, New York, while Alison was a high-performance swimmer in her native country of Scotland. Jake played NCAA hockey with the University at Buffalo while Jamie won a bronze medal with Team Canada at the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton and Calgary and then went on to join the Dallas Stars of the National Hockey League as a defenceman. Sister Hayley was a competitive rower at Northeastern University in Boston.
Early Swimming Career
Penny learned to swim at age 9 in a neighbour’s backyard pool. When she told her parents that she enjoyed swimming, they encouraged her to swim competitively. Penny 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 laps 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 later 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.
Penny was also determined. When she was 10, she led a bunch of older swimmers in a drill, but slipped and hit the pool deck face-first, breaking a tooth. She showed up to practice the next day.
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 also drew the attention of Ben Titley, who had just become head coach of the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre – Ontario. (Titley was part of Great Britain’s Olympic swim team coaching staff for three consecutive Olympic 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, winning 8 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 medal and two bronze medals.
While Oleksiak failed to make Team Canada for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, 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 4 x 100 m freestyle relay.
2016 Olympic Games
At 15 years old, 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, winning the gold medal in the women’s 100 m freestyle at both an Arena Pro Swim Series event in Charlotte, North Carolina, on 15 May, and at a Mare Nostrum event in Canet-en-Roussillon, France, on 9 June. As Rio was her first major international event, few people expected her to win any medals at the Games. Overall, expectations were not high for the Canadian swim team, with Sports Illustrated predicting zero medals for Canadian swimmers.
However, the Canadian swim team surpassed expectations, taking six medals at the 2016 Games in Rio. Oleksiak herself entered the history books, winning four medals (one gold, one silver and two bronze) — the most medals ever won by a Canadian at a single Olympic Summer Games.
She won gold in the women’s 100 m freestyle, where she set an Olympic record (tying with American gold medallist Simone Manuel) with a time of 52.70 seconds, becoming the first Olympic gold medallist born in the 2000s. Oleksiak 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 4 x 100 m freestyle relay (with Michelle Williams of Toronto, Taylor Ruck of Kelowna, Sandrine Mainville of Boucherville and Chantal Van Landeghem of Winnipeg) and the women’s 4 x 200 m freestyle relay (with Ruck, Katerine Savard of Québec City and Brittany MacLean of Mississauga). In recognition of her record-breaking performance, Oleksiak was named Canadian 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 4 x 50 m freestyle relay and women’s 4 x 200 m freestyle relay, silver in the women’s 4 x 100 m medley relay and bronze in the women’s 100 m freestyle.
Oleksiak is an ambassador for WE Charity (formerly Free the Children). 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.”
Honours and Awards
- Lou Marsh Trophy (2016)
- Bobbie Rosenfeld Award (2016)
- Female Swimmer of the Year Award, Swimming Canada (2016)