Penny Oleksiak is a name we all knew before the Tokyo Olympics, but she has since cemented her place in the history books as Canada’s most decorated Olympian.
The 21-year-old secured her seventh career medal after finishing the anchor freestyle leg, adding yet another record to her ever-growing list of incredible feats. A quick recap: at 16, she became the first Canadian athlete to win four medals in a single summer Games, she set an Olympic record tying for gold in the 100m freestyle becoming the first Canadian Olympic champion in swimming since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics— and Canada’s youngest Olympic gold medallist ever.
That’s a lot of records, and plenty of shiny hardware. But Oleksiak’s champion spirit is arguably even more evident outside of the pool, speaking openly about mental health, body image and the pressures young women—athletes, or not—face. With tweets and Instagram posts announcing her love for onion rings, eggs on pizza, and dog selfies, it’s a refreshing snapshot of normalcy —a brief glimpse into life outside of the very real demands of what it takes to be an Olympian.
We caught up with Oleksiak prior to the Games to discuss training, her partnership with Get Cracking, and what it means to represent Canada on a global stage.
How did training for this Olympics differ from 2016, given the delay?
Honestly it changed quite a bit. I think a lot more than even I was expecting. We usually get to go to a lot of meets throughout the year. Our schedule is pretty packed with traveling and going to Europe and the U.S. I love racing, so for me that was really fun. The training periods would be kind of hard because it’s difficult for me to really focus on training for a long period of time. But because of the pandemic we weren’t able to travel anymore. For the last two years, pretty much, we’ve just been training head down, and that was really hard for me to adjust to at first, but I think now I really love training. I really appreciate it. I think it’s time for me to get back into my love for racing.
What helped you to stay focused this past year?
I think it was just knowing that it’s the Olympics. That’s always kind of been a big deal for me. I look at all meets pretty much the same, but I always put the Olympics on a little bit more of a pedestal. I think it’s a really important meet and I really enjoy going and representing Canada. I think it was just knowing that it’s the Olympics, knowing that it’s just another year of training and trying to see the best in it and see how I can change things up and fix things and perfect little things in my day to day. That motivated me a little bit more honestly.
What are you most looking forward to with Tokyo 2021?
I was talking with one of the girls at practice about how it’s just going to be exciting to go to a meet and race on a world level again. The more I was thinking about it, the more I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to go and we get a suitcase full of Canada with little gifts and stuff in it.’ I’m more excited for all the girls I know that are going for their first time. I just want to see their reactions to getting all this stuff, and the village, and how exciting it’s all going to be. I think that’s what I’m most excited for honestly, to go and it being my second time and see other people’s first time and how they react to it.
How does it feel going in with it being your second time?
I want to have the same kind of nerves that I had in Rio because I feel like when I get nervous, that’s honestly pretty good for me. It pushes me to swim faster and just go for it. I’d say I’m just about the same amount of nervousness.
What is your favorite part about representing Canada on a global scale?
I think just the team. I really love meeting Canadian athletes. I don’t know if I’m going to have the chance this time around, but I remember in Rio, staying in the Team Canada building. We had a ping pong table and stuff like that. I met volleyball players and rugby players. It was just really cool to meet all these Canadian athletes, now I’ll see them sometimes.
Did you find more time do things that you maybe wouldn't have given a regular training year?
I’ve honestly learned to take things a little bit slower and to plan my week. I’m not as overwhelmed, before I would kind of try and do everything, I’d always be running around from one place to another all the time and it always stressed me out. I really just took time for myself, to read and chill. I’ll schedule time to see friends through the week and once all that time is filled, I’m like ‘Nope, that’s it. I need to get my reading in. I need to get my meditation in.’ I really love that, and I really appreciate that I did that for myself.
What did training look like in lockdown?
Honestly, I’ve been pretty open about this and a lot of people will find it kind of controversial I think, but when we were in full lockdown originally I was like ‘okay, we’re going to be back in two weeks. I need to work out every single day. I need to stay in shape, go on runs.’ Then as we got more into it, we were out of the water for four months. I just let myself workout when I felt like working out and eat whatever I wanted to eat. I was eating pretty healthy at that time because I just wanted to eat healthier foods. I wasn’t constantly training, my body didn’t crave carbs 24/7. I would say that over our four months out of the water, I would occasionally go swim in my cottage pool for like 20 minutes and my mom would be like ‘That’s how long you’re staying in for like?!’ So, no for me, I honestly just took it as time to relax and get my mindset ready for training for another year for the Olympics.
What do your mornings look like?
We don’t have those like 5:00 AM mornings. I don’t think I would honestly wake up if I had to do that. We are more like 7 30, 8 o’clock, which is nice. I’ll usually wake up and have a pretty small breakfast and have a coffee or a tea in the morning and go to the pool. We’ll usually have weights and a swim, or a circuit and a swim, or just a swim and then come home have a really good nutritious kind of breakfast, lunch type of situation. That’s pretty much my morning, try and get a nap in. Sometimes I’m feeling really good, I won’t nap.
What’s your guilty pleasure meal?
I still indulge. Even now, I’ll have a burger or something like that if I have an afternoon off and I know that I don’t have a training session. Onion rings are my go-to.
What are you usually including in your brunches to give you that energy and to help refuel your body after your rigorous training?
After a training session, I’ll usually have something right away, something pretty high in carbs, like smoothie or a bar or something. When I get home, I literally every single day have avocado toast with eggs or scrambled eggs. I am really lucky to be working with Eggs because I have eggs every single day after practice. They will send me eggs and stuff, and I’m loving that. I think they’re really nutritious and healthy.
What are your go-to meals when you're preparing for an event?
I have a few, honestly. My go-to is the rice bowl. I posted it on my Stories a while ago, it’s a rice bowl with rice, cucumber, spinach, peppers, beanstalks, mushrooms, and egg on top, cook that perfectly so it oozes out a little bit. It’s literally the most delicious restaurant quality thing ever. If I don’t feel like doing that, my go-to for a really late night snack will just be a pack of ramen with scrambled egg. That’s my late night snack.