Photo: Elaine Fancy
After a record-setting Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics, what’s next for Penny Oleksiak? A push towards Tokyo 2020 and, hopefully, more gold.
If you’ve ever looked into the eyes of an 18-year-old and wondered about their capacity to change this world for the better, let it be known, that as long as we’re in the hands of Penny Oleksiak, the future looks bright.
Ironically, Oleksiak doesn’t look to the future all that much. University? She’ll apply some time after Tokyo 2020. Her concept of time doesn’t flow in years, like the rest of us. For Oleksiak, time’s defined by one competition to the next. After all, prepping for competition is what her life revolves around. While most “normal” 18-year-olds spend their time at house parties, on Instagram, or loitering at fast-casuals like Chipotle, Oleksiak’s in the pool… somewhere between 21 and 42 hours a week.
But Oleksiak’s a traitor to her generation. If she had to pick a social platform, it’d be Instagram over Snapchat, she says. But she’s terrible at replying to DMs (direct messages). “It’s better for you to be off it,” she utters, wise for her years. “I’m kind of doing stuff all the time.”
Take the day we did this interview, for example. After three hours of in-pool training in the morning, a 10 AM to 5 PM spring campaign shoot with ASICS, an interview with us, and another photo shoot (for this story), Oleksiak’s public relations team finally cuts everyone off at 5:30 PM, so she can get shuttled back to the pool. What’s most remarkable about Oleksiak is that none of this is perceived as “work.”
“It’s just really cool—it just makes me really happy to live the life that I’m living, I guess,” she explains.
“I’m grateful for all the opportunities that I have, whether it’s being able to travel to Kenya to go help there, or whether I get to fly somewhere [for a race].."
Then there’s Oleksiak’s extreme sense of humility, which shines through, as I watch her do weighted split squats, almost like she can’t handle the 60-pound weights, even though she can. She even remarks that she always feels so “unfit” during these photo shoots, while she’s hanging from gymnastics rings and cajoled to do leg ups. This is a teenager who’s not yet internalized her physical strength.
There’s been a lot of insider talk surrounding Oleksiak’s naiveté during Rio 2016. Relegating her medals to the fact that, back then, there was no outside pressure: from the media, from an entire country, from herself. She was just a 16-year-old swimmer ready to race.
When asked whether her success can be attributed to talent or grit, she’s candid: “I’ve put in so much work that at this point I don’t know. It’s hard to pinpoint,” she explains.
But the pressure? How does she deal with that? Especially with a whole new summer Olympics on her shoulders. “Over time you kind of learn how to deal with [it]; I deal with it by listening to music and chilling out,” she says, in a casual manner. “I try not to overthink things…If [I’m] going to the Olympics, I kind of look at everything as just a race.”