Decorated swimmer Penny Oleksiak healing from knee surgery, not yet ready to race

Penny Oleksiak feels ahead of schedule on her recovery from knee surgery, but Canada's star swimmer isn't ready to join her teammates racing a World Cup in their home pool in Toronto.

Almost two months after her meniscus tear repair, Oleksiak is back in the water and recently shed the knee brace she wore on land and in the water.

"I've just been doing things a little bit earlier than everyone expected, which is nice, but I feel I've been doing every step I can to ensure I could be ahead of schedule," Oleksiak told The Canadian Press.

Her Canadian teammates race Friday to Sunday at Toronto's Pan Am Centre in the World Cup's second leg. The opening leg was in Berlin and the third is Nov. 3-5 in Indianapolis.

Oleksiak won't step on the start blocks in her hometown. She'll be poolside cheering them on.

"I'm just going to be excited to be able to go and watch them all," Oleksiak said. "I think it'll just be like a really fun weekend."

The 22-year-old's seven medals — one gold, two silver, four bronze — makes her the most decorated Olympian in Canadian history.

Oleksiak helped her country win four relay medals in June's world championship in Budapest, Hungary, to bring her career total in that event to a record nine for a Canadian swimmer.

She was about to depart for Tanzania and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro as a fundraiser for global hunger at the end of the summer when her knee flared.

The meniscus is a rubbery piece of cartilage in the knee between the thigh bone and shin bone.

Oleksiak is unsure of the injury's origin, although massage therapists had previously told her she had fluid buildup in her knee.

"I think it was something that was a long time coming," Oleksiak said. "I was sitting on the floor in an apartment I was renting in Orlando and I got up and couldn't walk on it."

The COVID-19 pandemic had forced her out of the pool for long stretches, but the difference was her teammates were in the same predicament.

Unable to do any training in the two weeks post-surgery was stressful for her.

"I was watching everyone else go back to training and I just had to wait," Oleksiak said. "That was terrifying.

"I've never had to just sit around and not have anything to do. I had to work a lot with my therapist. Even before my surgery, I told her I needed to book some appointments because I knew it would come (to that)."

Oleksiak pushed through a back injury to win a freestyle bronze and a pair of relay medals in Tokyo's Olympic Games last year, but this experience felt different.

"It's definitely a learning process because this is my first injury and surgery," she said. "It's kind of forced me to slow down and focus on what my priorities are right now with swimming.

"It's been a fun process to work on myself mentally and also physically in ways I wouldn't normally. I've kind of had to be creative and find new ways of working out and find new things that are interesting to me."

She intends to attempt Mt. Kilimanjaro next year to continue her fundraising efforts.

"I think it's such an important cause regardless of whether I'm climbing or not this year," Oleksiak said.

With no major international championships on the near horizon, Oleksiak doesn't feel the clock ticking yet on a return to racing.

Fukuoka, Japan, hosts the 2023 world championship next July. The 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games are in Paris.

"I haven't really put a set schedule down," Oleksiak said. "I'm kind of taking my time with getting back right now.

"I'm always looking at the Olympics, so for me, 2024 is my ultimate goal."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press