Typically, when we picture our most dominant athletes, our minds paint a vivid picture of bravado and unabridged ferocity. We think of Kobe Bryant standing on the scorer’s table with confetti raining down on him as he fist-pumps through a flurry of expletives, celebrating his fifth and final championship. We think of Cristiano Ronaldo sprinting to the opposite end of the field and performing an obscene celebration to taunt a rival manager. We think of Serena Williams yelling to the crowd after her 2012 Olympic gold medal victory, followed soon after by a now-iconic choreographed dance.
But, as we’ve come to learn over the years from stoic superstars such as Kawhi Leonard and Naomi Osaka, dominance is not defined by its brashness or volume. Greatness isn’t dependent on anything but talent and results. Of course, sometimes such athletes temporarily fly under the radar, but in the end, we celebrate Williams and Osaka for their victories, not how they celebrated them.
Ultimately, greatness always rises to the top, which is why when Toronto-native Penny Oleksiak became Canada’s most decorated Olympian by winning bronze in the 4x100m medley relay in Tokyo this past summer, the rest of the world was forced to take notice. Afterwards, realizing she had just broken the record, there were no boisterous fist-pumps or bellows to the crowd. Instead, the now-seven-time medalist simply nodded her head, smiled, and hugged her teammates. It was a celebration that reflected the steady, quiet confidence that has defined Oleksiak’s career to date. While others are quick to speak to their accolades, the 21-year-old is happy to let her accolades speak for her.
But still, such accomplishments have warranted a healthy curiosity from both Canadian and international spectators alike clamouring to know the woman who’s become her country’s most accomplished Olympian. Fortunately, we had the rare opportunity of speaking with Oleksiak on the recipe behind her success, including how she’s evolved since her last Olympic appearance, dealing with the spotlight, learning to celebrate herself, the quiet confidence that will continue to define her career in the years to come, and so much more.
GLORY: Upon your return from the Tokyo Games, you became the most decorated Canadian Olympian ever with a total of seven medals. What does that mean to hold a title like that? Have you had a chance to process it all?
Penny Oleksiak: I don’t think I’ve really had a chance to like fully process it. It’s weird to me to be the most decorated Olympian in Canada. I just look at myself as “little Penny” and that’s just how I see everything. And it’s weird when people want to come up to me and ask for photos or when I’m asked to do crazy glamorous photoshoots. It’s weird to me because it’s just me.
GLORY: What was different heading into Tokyo versus Rio?
Penny Oleksiak: I think just my mentality going into Rio versus Tokyo. Going into Rio, I didn’t really know what I was doing. That was the first senior meet that I had ever made before being on Team Canada. I was so young going into it and I’d gotten so much faster in just a few months. It was a really weird experience for me to just go to Rio and get four medals. I never really had time to process that. And then for Tokyo, my mentality was totally changed. I feel like I learned so much over the last four or five years to where I’ve learned how to carry myself in the pool. I’ve learned how to change my mindset going into races and how to really focus. I understand the sport a lot better and understand that mental performance plays such a big role in physical performance.
GLORY: What was the first thing you did to celebrate after you won and realized that you had crossed that huge milestone?
Penny Oleksiak: I honestly didn’t do much. I just spent a little bit of time with my teammates and had a good dinner in the dining hall in Tokyo. And then we flew back. I think it was the next day. So, it was nothing really big. As soon as I got home, I had a small little dinner with my family and it was just really nice to come home and just have things be regular for a minute.
GLORY: What is your training philosophy? What do you use to push and motivate yourself?
Penny Oleksiak: I always have a goal in mind and I think I’m always looking towards the Olympics mainly, but also just trying to get better every single day. Every day I’m in the pool, I want to be able to find something to fix or find something to work on. I’m constantly thinking when I’m training about how my hand position is or how my turns are feeling or my underwater kicks or something. Pretty much every day I’m looking for something new to fix. I don’t like having days where I feel perfect because then I’m just stressing. Like, no, I need to be better than this.
GLORY: There’s been a lot of discourse around mental health recently, especially in the sports community with athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka putting a spotlight on the topic for young athletes, especially young female athletes. How are you doing?
Penny Oleksiak: I learned a lot after Rio because right after, I was pretty overwhelmed with everything from the media, especially. It took me a few years to learn how to look at everything a bit differently and take the pressures and just use them as motivation almost. I think nearing the Tokyo Olympics, there wasn’t as much media attention. People didn’t think I was going to do as well, so I was just living life normally and I was loving it. And then, after Tokyo, things ramped up a bit again. It’s been a little bit overwhelming recently but I’m trying to just remind myself of how to handle it all. It’s an experience that’s not always pretty.
GLORY: Achieving a title like being the most decorated Canadian Olympian must feel incredible, but is it ever overwhelming? How do you deal with that pressure?
Penny Oleksiak: I deal with it a lot better now than I used to. Now, I have a bit more confidence in my training and in myself. I know what I’m capable of. I know I can’t fool myself, so if I put in the work, I’m going to do well. That’s just kind of who I am and especially surrounding the Olympics, I love stepping up. I think there is a lot of pressure, not only on me, but on athletes in general just because people idolize them. There’s always this pressure to be perfect all the time and that can be very daunting. I’ve had to teach myself to not always focus on winning but just on being better.
GLORY: How do you embrace discomfort?
Penny Oleksiak: I think you need to find a balance with it. You need to push yourself pretty hard and push yourself past your comfort zone a lot of the time. For me, I do that by working with really good trainers because I know, for myself in a race, I’m able to push myself past that and get to that extra gear or that next level at the end of a race, especially. I think there’s also an understanding that sometimes you don’t need to push yourself past your comfort zone. I think a lot of athletes will do that and then it results in burnout and you’ve pushed yourself too far and now you can’t do any more. I think it’s just finding that balance.
GLORY: Obviously, you’re no stranger to representing Canada on an international level. In your experience, do you feel like the international community views Canada as an underdog or as a quiet that doesn’t really do enough to celebrate our successes?
Penny Oleksiak: I kind of love that about Canada. Every athlete I’ve met here, every person that I’ve met who’s really successful out of Canada, is very humble. I think that’s a great attribute of a person. I love meeting people like that because they’re a lot more grounded. They don’t see themselves as above anyone else. Those are the people I love being around. For me, I love it but I think Canada also does celebrate their successes a lot. It’s just not as extravagant as it might be in other places.
GLORY: How do you celebrate yourself?
Penny Oleksiak: Just by surrounding myself with the people that I have around me and making sure that I’m making time for myself and other people.
GLORY: You mentioned once that you found it difficult previously to give yourself positive feedback. What do you do now to give yourself what you need?
Penny Oleksiak: Now, it’s just having a lot more confidence in my training. In the last year and a half, not being able to race as much and having to focus on training a lot more and just being stuck in the same country, the same pool, was really different for me. I think getting more confidence in myself [during] training has helped a lot with having more confidence day-to-day and being able to give myself more positive reinforcement.
GLORY: What advice do you have for other people to celebrate their own accomplishments?
Penny Oleksiak: Celebrate the little things. I had to really celebrate things in training first and then I was able to work my way up and now I’m happy with myself in bigger races.
GLORY: What gives you purpose?
Penny Oleksiak: Being the best athlete and person I can be. At the end of the day, every day, it’s about swimming—how I can be better at it and how I can use that as a platform to get kids to pursue their dreams and not listen to certain people who are doubting them. That’s all I can ask for.
GLORY: Who are the women that you look up to in your life?
Penny Oleksiak: For me, number one [are] those girls that I was on the relay with in Rio. I felt like they almost were like my second family. They kind of raised me a bit and taught me how to act at the pool. They helped me outside of the pool with things like school and different relationships. I have two amazing sisters and a great sister-in-law, and I love them all so much. And, of course, my mom. I love her. She’s amazing. Growing up, she taught me about being a strong woman. She’s taught me how to be independent and confident in myself. I appreciate her for that.
Photographer: Ilich Mejia
Stylist: Shea Hurley/Plutino
Hair/MUA: Franceline Graham/Plutino
Photo Assistant: Francisco Andrade
Styling Assistant: Esme McBride
Audio/Video: Elaine Fancy, Spencer Bell
Intern: Margaux Perrin