There were few Canadians that didn’t have their eyes glued to a television set on Thursday night waiting in anticipation of what 16 year old Penny Oleksiak of Toronto, Ontario might do in the women’s 100 freestyle. As Oleksiak stormed home in the final 50 meters, passing the overwhelming favourite Australian Cate Campbell to put her hand on the wall at the same time as American Simone Manuel to win gold a nation was filled with emotion, excitement and pride.
That included Canadian Olympic swimming heroes of the past. Anne Ottenbrite-Muylaert, who was the last female to win gold in the pool for Canada at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, attempted to describe the indescribable, “It is very emotional to watch,” Ottenbrite told SwimSwam. “It makes you remember and feel the same emotions she is feeling.”
“And yes it is indescribable. It is just a moment in time, but it will last a lifetime.”
“I’m so proud and happy.”
One of Canada’s most recent medalists in the water Brent Hayden, who won a bronze in the 100 freestyle in London, jumped off of his couch as fast as he took off from the blocks in London, “When she touched the wall, I screamed so loud and jumped off the couch,” Hayden told SwimSwam. “She didn’t win just any Olympic gold medal. She won the first gold medal in 24 years! I am just so proud.”
Tom Ponting, who won a silver medal in the men’s 4 x 100 medley relay in 1984 and 1988 as well as a bronze in the same event in 1992, screamed so loud that he was not able to talk after the race concluded, “I was excited, just to have a swimmer in that final was great,” Ponting told SwimSwam. “But she’s been so competitive I wondered what she would do. That second fifty cost me my voice!”
After turning in seventh place at the halfway mark there were many wondering if Oleksiak could make up the time she had to in the final 50 meters. Hayden was not one of them, “I think if it had been any other swimmer, I would’ve thought she was going out too slow and wouldn’t have room to come back. But it’s what she’s been doing all competition. With 15m left to go, you could just see her storming back into the lead and I just started to repeat “omg omg omg” to myself until she touched the wall.”
“Just a gutsy swim,” added Ponting. “(She) never gave up.”
Her race reminding Ponting of another Canadian swimmer, “I have to admit it was like watching Anne in her win in 1984.”
At 18 years old Ottenbrite-Muylaert won the 200 breaststroke and took home a silver in the 100 breaststroke, the same two colours of medals Oleksiak has earned in individual swims in Rio. Watching Penny race has evoked some special memories for Ottenbrite-Muylaert, “The podium. Oh the podium. The flag and the national anthem played in your honour. Need I say more?”
Ottenbrite-Muylaert is now the Head Coach of the Pickering Swim Club, a team located just outside of Toronto, and has had the opportunity to see Oleksiak grow and develop as a swimmer, “She is a very special competitor and swimmer with amazing skills. (Her success) is not a surprise to me.”
“I believe she has received excellent coaching from the very beginning and it shows. She has always excelled through her age group years, like she still is.”
The three agree that Oleksiak’s biggest strength might be how she is genuinely enjoying the moment, “I’m loving that she is laughing and having a blast in the ready room,” said Ottenbrite-Muylaert. “I remember being that fun loving swimmer. That is what it is all about.”
“She is clearly in love with the sport right now and that warms my heart to the very core.”
Hayden explains that it is a special skill to be able to handle the moment the way she is, “Watching how she was in the ready room, so relaxed and smiling, is something that a lot of swimmers can’t do. So I think her ability to enjoy being in the moment is something that is going to help her have a long successful career.”
“She is in tune with her emotions, she’s enjoying it, not analyzing it,” explains Ponting. “A kind of child-like lightheartedness. She obviously has a strong belief in her training and racing ability.”
Swimming is unique, it is an individual sport, but if you talk to any swimmer they will tell you it is a team sport as well. In team sports you can see how others are affected by the enthusiasm and success of one of their teammates on the field of play immediately, the same thing can happen in the water, “Success is contagious,” says Hayden. “When one person has an outstanding performance, everybody feels it and it gives the team a reason to walk a little taller.”
Ponting agrees, “One swimmer totally affects the group. That momentum, that energy, that belief.”
Oleksiak’s success will not only have an effect on the team in Rio, but it has the potential to change Canadian swimming in the same way that it was changed after Alex Baumann, Victor Davis and Ottenbrite-Muylaert all won gold in 1984, “Years ago when we had a great showing at the Olympics we hoped it would lift the whole country and make Canadians believe in themselves,” says Ottenbrite. “I have the same feeling now. We have great swimmers here and now. Penny will inspire a whole new generation.”
“I have big hopes that this will be the leading change we have needed to see us move forward.”
Hayden believes Oleksiak’s success is going to create that change, “This team has skyrocketed Canadian swimming into the limelight. Right now, there are a lot of young athletes who’s dreams have just had a huge fire lit under them. I bet in Tokyo, we will see a lot of new faces make the team that wouldn’t have dreamed it was possible if not for our swimmers here in Rio.”
For those who are focused on the bright future that the 16 year-old Oleksiak has Ottenbrite-Muylaert shares some words of wisdom, “She has a great future ahead of her, but first lets just enjoy and honour her for her accomplishments.”
Oleksiak has become a star overnight and has a country that is obsessed with a sport that takes place on frozen water talking about what is happening in the pool. There is no doubt that every swim team in the country will see an influx of young people arriving at the pool with the dream of becoming the next Penny.
But with one night of competition left to go in Rio lets sit back and enjoy the moment the same way Penny is.