WINDSOR, Ontario —Teenage sensation Penny Oleksiak may be one of Canada’s most decorated Olympians.
But this week’s FINA world short-course swimming championships are a week-long tutorial for the 16-year-old from Toronto, who stepped up on the starting blocks Thursday night as a virtual rookie among elders.
And moments after she raced to a bronze medal in the 100-metre freestyle, the same event in which she roared to gold and into Canada’s collective heart in Rio, she lamented the couple of small strategic mistakes she made.
“The last (25-metre) leg was pretty tough just because everything was numb,” O leksiaksaid. “I just put everything I could into it, and I should have taken out one breath, maybe two. But I guess I’ll learn for next time.”
Oleksiak touched the wall in 52.01 seconds, breaking her own Canadian record for the third time in two days. Brittany Elmslie of Australia raced to gold in 51.81, while Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands claimed silver (51.92).
“I’m not disappointed,” Oleksiak said. “It’s just more working on skills, and I guess I just learned from that race that you can’t take those extra two breaths. I’m pretty happy with myself, yeah.”
Hilary Caldwell of White Rock, B.C., narrowly missed the medal podium, finishing fourth in the 200 backstroke.
Short-course swimming—in a 25-metre pool rather than the 50 metres used for other major international meets—favours a certain type of swimmer, with its emphasis on turns and the underwater push-off.
It’s a fine line between taking too many breaths, as Oleksiak did, and holding your breath for too long.
“It’s almost a different sport sometimes,” said Ryan Cochrane, a two-time Olympic medallist who’s working as a commentator at the meet. “It is hard. All racing is hard, but it’s just very different.”
Oleksiak’s competition Thursday night had “years and years” on the Grade 11 student, Cochrane pointed out. The 22-year-old Elmslie has five medals over two Olympic Games, while Kromowidjojo, 26, has four Olympic medals and a whopping 24 world championships over long and short-course.
The focus for Oleksiak in the immediate weeks after Rio were about adjusting to her new life as a recognizable sports figure, and the time-sapping responsibilities that can come with it.
Indeed, Cochrane said, the immediate weeks after a Games can be tough for an Olympic medallist.
“It’s just new. She started school again, she’s had to deal with a lot. I think those expectations were getting pretty high,” Cochrane said.
“You see some people (at the meet) are really, really prepared. But you have to have some understanding that’s it’s harder for people managing all these parts of their lives after the Olympics, because even just the emotional letdown after the Olympics is hard, and to get back racing just a couple of months later is difficult.”
“I think she’s handled herself really well.”
Oleksiak penned a long list of Olympic accomplishments in her Games debut: she became the youngest summer Olympic gold medallist in Canadian history, first Canadian Olympic swimming champion since Mark Tewksbury in 1992, and most decorated Canadian at a Summer Games — all in her debut.
She also led a march to the medal podium by Canada’s female swimmers, who captured six medals in Rio.
The ripple from their splash is still being felt.
“I’ve seen it all across the country. People talk about swimming now. I wish that it had happened 10 years ago,” Cochrane said. “People ask you questions, they’re interested, you can tell they watched the Olympics.”
“I think Penny is a good person to have in the forefront of that, she’s led the team, and hopefully that continues. . . and brings swimming back to the glory days when we were winning gold medals all the time.”
Oleksiak’s medal was Canada’s fourth of the meet.
Caldwell finished in 2:03.98 in the 200 backstroke, won by Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu.
“Fourth in December right now at short-course, it’s not bad, I’m not too upset,” Caldwell said.
The 25-year-old, who won bronze in the event in Rio, said in being in Windsor this week, she’s noticed an increased interest in her sport.
“Definitely everybody seems to recognize Kylie around, it’s her hometown, and she’s been on all the posters,” she said about Kylie Masse, who won bronze in the 100 backstroke both in Rio and Wednesday in Windsor. “And Penny Oleksiak, people are excited.
“I think the fact there’s starting to be a little bit more excitement around swimming is good for the future, and hopefully it means we have more and more kids getting into swimming and getting excited about it.”