Canada’s Class Act

Aug 8, 2016

16-year-old Toronto teen Penny Oleksiak already owns two Olympic medals in Rio… Her older brother Jamie is in the NHL, a defensive beast for the Dallas Stars… Making the proud Oleksiak clan Canada’s new first family of sport… 

Alison and Richard Oleksiak have done something right. And that goes well beyond granting their children with some serious genes. Mom was a swimmer, dad was a Hall of Fame high school athlete growing up in Buffalo. Penny is the youngest of four, and it’s taken a couple Olympic medals for her to claim the title of best athlete in the family.

Of course, she’s also laid claim to perhaps being called the best athlete in all of Canada right about now. But let’s talk family first. Here’s what it looks like to watch your daughter win Olympic silver. 

On night two of Olympic swimming in Rio, Oleksiak raced to that silver in the 100 fly, in a World Junior Record. One night earlier, she anchored Canada’s bronze medal winning relay in the women’s 4×100 free. It was Team Canada’s first Olympic relay medley since Mark Tewsbury led the Canadian men to medley relay bronze back in 1992 in Barcelona. It was Canada’s first women’s relay medal since the boycotted 1984 L.A. Games, when the women won bronze in the medley.

It’s the relays, of course, that reveal the overall strength of a country’s aquatic prowess. For a long time it has helped reveal the lack of depth among a generation of Canadian swim teams. I was a member of Team Canada exactly twenty years ago, back in 1996 in Atlanta; we managed to qualify just eight guys on that team. Suffice to say relay glory was not remotely reachable. Back then just meeting the FINA A-standards and making the Team was a high order.

Times have changed for Team Canada, and 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak is the face of that resurgence. She’s 6’1, a physical freak (using the f-word in the most positive sense), and the sort of natural athlete that coaches salivate over.

Years ago it was an eye-rolling cliché that swimmers weren’t exactly the best athletes – that is, on land. We were the uncoordinated, land-challenged lot who by some odd genetic twist took to water while we stumbled through every other sport we tried. Oleksiak represents the new breed of champion swimmer, the one that looks and moves like she could be a pro athlete in plenty of other sports.

And why couldn’t she? Brother Jamie puts the ‘big’ in big brother. He’s listed at 6’7, 263 pounds by the Stars; he was picked 14th overall in the 2011 NHL draft. In skates and pads he probably looks about 7-feet and over 300 pounds. Imagine that coming at you on ice as you charge for the net. Her other older brother, Jake, played NCAA hockey at the University of Buffalo. Her sister Clare is currently a rower at Northeastern University in Boston.

This is a family born into the deep end of the athletic gene pool.

It also appears to be a crew of well raised kids with humble hearts. How’s this for wise-beyond-her-years classy: After the medal ceremony for that relay bronze, the quartet circled the deck for their interview with the CBC. They brought down relay alternate Michelle Williams to join them. Then, 16-year-old Penny took off her own medal and put it around Williams’ neck – so she too could fully experience the moment.

Maybe she knew she’d have medals to spare. She took another step up the podium the next night in the 100 fly. Here’s betting she’s going to be back there again before the week is out in Rio. Because here’s something for Team Canada to start getting excited about: their women’s medley relay team won’t ‘just’ be racing to make the podium.

With Oleksiak leading the way, they are going to challenge the US and Australia for gold.