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Penny Oleksiak's legacy is even bigger than her Olympic medal collection

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Penny Oleksiak arrived at the Tokyo Olympics with history on her horizon.

At the age of 21, it was right there, three medals away, the chance to eclipse Canada’s all-time record and become the country’s most decorated Olympian, summer or winter. On Saturday, the number had shrunk to one — with one last chance in Tokyo after missing the podium in her prior two efforts.

“I was a little nervous about it in my last two races,” Oleksiak said following Saturday’s race. “I wasn’t thinking about it coming into the Games. In my other two races I was thinking about it. I came in fourth and that hurt a little bit.”

Fourth again wouldn’t cut it. Third though, third lasts forever. Standing with a bronze medal around her neck after the 4x100-metre medley relay ended, Oleksiak found herself somewhere no Canadian had ever been before — and able to say something no Canadian has ever said. She’s a seven-time Olympic medallist, a singular feat for a singular career.

Canada's Penny Oleksiak walks off the podium with her bronze medal won in the women's 200m freestyle final event during the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, in Tokyo, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
Penny Oleksiak has cemented her legacy as the greatest Canadian Olympaian ever. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

Along with Kylie Masse, Maggie Mac Neil and Sydney Pickrem, Oleksiak claimed third in the women’s 4x100-metre medley relay, arriving at the horizon that was off in the distance since her four-medal win at the 2016 Rio Games.

“I’m glad I didn’t win it on an individual [race] because this just makes it like 10-times sweeter,” Oleksiak said after finishing in a Canadian-record time of 3:52.60. “I’ve accomplished this history with girls that are also making history.”

It marked the country’s sixth medal overall in the pool of these Games — the same number as their total in Rio five years ago — and the third Tokyo medal for Mac Neil (21 years old) and Masse (25), and the first for Pickrem (24).

“This is only the beginning for Team Canada in swimming,” Oleksiak said. “We were young in 2016, and now we’re still young — but we’re going to hit our peak soon, 2024 and 2028, we’re on the come-up and I love that.”

Time moves at a different cadence for most Olympic-level competitors, their windows of contention so small that conventional understandings of young and old don’t quite fit. But the timeline of Oleksiak’s rise to this Tokyo moment belongs in cinema.

A neighbour’s backyard pool is where nine-year-old Oleksiak learned to swim and enjoyed it so much her parents encouraged her to give competitive swimming a go. It either didn’t go according to plan or went exactly as it should. She was rejected from the first two clubs she tried out for because she had difficulty meeting the requirements of swimming two laps.

“It was a combination of freestyle with breaststroke pull and a fly kick — it was just a mess,” Gary Nolden, the coach who would eventually take her on, told Macleans magazine in 2016. “Every time she swam she got faster. Every time she showed up at the pool, she was an inch taller.”

A footnote like that is comforting the way Michael Jordan not making his varsity team in high school is comforting. For a flash, any of us can be transported to our own version of that shortcoming and see ourselves in their story. If they could go from where they were to where they ended up, well, who’s to say for sure wild dreams can’t come true for the rest of us?

Maybe they could with Oleksiak’s determination. She didn’t give up after being cut and, a year later, at the Canadian Age Group Championships in Winnipeg, Oleksiak won eight gold medals.

Life didn’t slow down from there. Just seven years after learning to swim, Rio happened. She bore Canada’s flag at the closing ceremonies as the country’s swimming supernova.

Canada's Penny Oleksiak, from Toronto, holds up her four medals, a gold, silver and two bronze, she won at the 2016 Summer Olympics. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)
Canada's Penny Oleksiak holds up her four medals, a gold, silver and two bronze, she won at the 2016 Summer Olympics. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

The trouble with being that young, and that successful, is the expectation it won’t be the climax.

“I think there was definitely a lot of pressure from the outside,” Oleksiak told Sportsnet’s Donnovan Bennett prior to the 2020 Games. “I kind of put that pressure on myself of, like, ‘I can't lose. I can't ever have a bad race. I always need to be on top.’ And it really gets to you after a while. Nothing became really good enough for me at that point.”

Love isn’t static — for people or for passions — and as pressure mounted, joy left the pool.

Oleksiak needed time. Time to breathe without being who she had to be when the world’s lights were on her. She pulled out of the 2018 Pan Pacific Swimming Championship to find what she lost — and where she wanted to go next.

Then the pandemic hit.

"The nine days of competition here is almost three times more days of racing than we've had in the last 18 months. That's unbelievable," Ben Titley, the team's coach, said. "What the athletes did here, particularly the group of women and particularly Penny, is truly remarkable."

Despite lockdown restrictions, despite grappling with a yearslong back injury she kept under wraps until after Saturday's race that prevented her from going in the water, despite the Games themselves being pushed back a full year — she did it.

The anchor for Canada’s first medal of the Games, the women’s 4x100-metre freestyle relay, she helped kickstart Canada’s women-led charge to the podium in Tokyo. She followed it up with a bronze in the women’s 200-metre freestyle, setting the stage for her horizon-reaching bronze.

“The notion of repeating and the burden of expectations, internally and externally, can be so disruptive,” Marnie McBean, the three-time Olympic champion rower and Canada’s Chef de Mission, said. “Penny figured out how to thrive all while being an amazing role model to young Canadians.”

This horizon isn’t really an end, though. Not really. None are once they’re reached. Because when they are, a new one emerges, and what was once the destination becomes a landmark on a travelled road.

It’s tempting to muse, as the champagne dries on this win, about what could come next. Will Paris be a golden summer for her? Will she, some number of Games down the line, walk away from the sport standing on the podium with Canada’s anthem playing?

Future possibilities are easy vessels to fill with hope. And what comes next will matter. Maybe the alchemy of pride, joy and achievement from seven medals can only really be outdone by the feeling of striving for — and reaching — eight.

“I have been going through hell and back for the last two, three years,” Oleksiak said. “To be here and come out the other end of everything, and know that I’m good now and I get to train with the girls the next three years — knowing that we’re going to fricken Paris — I’m just so excited to see what’s going to happen.”

That future will come, fast enough probably that this history will feel like yesterday still when it arrives.

Today and tomorrow and forever more, though, there were these Tokyo Games — a testament to her legend being written by medals and her podium-filled legacy being something more ethereal.

It’s in Summer McIntosh, the 14-year-old phenom who trains with her and may be the next Oleksiak before Penny has finished being the first Oleksiak.

It’s in being a lighthouse for everyone who loved something but had to leave it, showing that no matter how far we drift or what weights we feel, there’s a way back.

It’s in the nine-year-old who stayed up late to watch her power and her grace bend water and stretch imaginations, deciding right then and there they’d be a swimmer one day, too.

And it’s the bond forged with Masse, Mac Neil and Pickrem, through every tribulation before Saturday’s relay and every smile in its wake.

Oleksiak earned this seventh medal. She deserves all the flowers coming her way from Canadians coast-to-coast. And soon the lights will go down. The closing ceremonies will end. When they do, each of these medals will be memories. But what Oleksiak showed a nation will shine longer, and change more, than even her final bronze — as only the best people can.

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