Penny Olek­siak, after the Olympics

Penny Olek­siak re­turned home from the Rio Olympics a na­tional hero. But what hap­pens when you want to be the best swim­mer in the world and a nor­mal teenager?

Toronto Life - - Front Page - Pho­to­graph by Christo­pher Wahl By Ka­t­rina On­stad

None of this is nor­mal. It’s not nor­mal to have just cel­e­brated a 16th birth­day and then, bam, eight weeks later, to be at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, pulling on gog­gles, shak­ing out arms and legs, ready­ing to dive into the pool for the 100-me­tre freestyle. It’s not nor­mal to be stand­ing a few me­tres away from Michael Phelps in the ready room along­side the best swim­mers in the world. It’s also not nor­mal to be part of a fam­ily that in­cludes, among other elite ath­letes, a brother in the NHL, or to be over six feet tall with a mas­sive wing­span, or to have al­ready earned three medals by day six of one’s first-ever se­nior in­ter­na­tional swimming event. But there she is on the blocks, 16-yearold Penny Olek­siak, a nor­mal teen from the Beaches.

Butt up, dive, front crawl. The cord be­tween spec­ta­tor and swim­mer is sev­ered, and Olek­siak is loosed into a dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere. What swim­mers talk about when they talk about swimming are the si­lence and the soli­tude. What does Penny Olek­siak think about? Song lyrics, some­times. She is a fan of gang­ster rap. A friend gave her a book of Tu­pac’s po­ems re­cently, and she has com­posed a few stan­zas of her own, though she’s too shy to show them to any­body. But mostly, in­side her head, in the wa­ter, it’s just…noth­ing. And that’s calm­ing. Si­lence is her rock, she says.

At the turn, she’s sev­enth out of eight, al­most a full sec­ond be­hind the favourite. But Olek­siak is a closer. Olek­siak chases, and Olek­siak closes. In the fi­nal 15 me­tres, it looks like she de­cides, “Okay then, no more time for this whole breath­ing thing,” and she goes un­der, un­der, un­der, only sur­fac­ing to touch the wall—and it’s done. Two lengths in just 52.7 sec­onds. She pops above the wa­ter and re­moves one Q-tip swimming cap to re­veal another, and then she just kind of treads wa­ter and hangs out. She doesn’t look at the board, a habit she later ex­plains as: “I know I did the best I could, so I don’t re­ally need to look.” But this time, she senses a rustling in the bleach­ers. The dry world has erupted, so she looks at the board. And she has won gold. Gold! Well, tied, tech­ni­cally, with an Amer­i­can, Si­mone Manuel. But still, gold! And an Olympic record at that. To Cana­di­ans, and es­pe­cially Toron­to­ni­ans, watch­ing their home­town girl make good—four medals in six days—Penny Olek­siak is brand new and de­light­ful. She’s a teen from Monarch Park Col­le­giate, and with her sleepy grin and ropey, per­pet­u­ally wet hair, she’s charm­ingly low-key, a lit­tle be­mused by the at­ten­tion.

In the days that fol­lowed, Olek­siak was called on to bear the flag (which she says is sur­pris­ingly light), and Drake in­sta­grammed her pic­ture, un­leash­ing max­i­mum punc­tu­a­tion: “We are so proud of you !!!! ” The re­turn to Toronto brought TV crews out­side her high school and a slew of ap­pear­ances at swim clubs, char­ity events and awards cer­e­monies, such as when she won the 2016 Lou Marsh Tro­phy for best Cana­dian ath­lete. Over the next year, she threw the first pitch at a Blue Jays game and took a trip with the We or­ga­ni­za­tion to Kenya, where she was kissed by a gi­raffe. She got a stand­ing ova­tion while pre­sent­ing an award with Jason Pri­est­ley at the Cana­dian Screen Awards, did a cameo dressed as a can­non doll in the Na­tional Bal­let’s Nut­cracker, and signed spon­sor­ship deals with ASICS and RBC.

Olek­siak han­dled this tidal wave of at­ten­tion gra­ciously, wait­ing un­til the last kid in line had an au­to­graph, even if it took three hours. When she’d go shop­ping at the Ea­ton Centre and get cor­nered by fans look­ing for self­ies and sig­na­tures, her friends would be all, “Come on, Pen,” and Olek­siak would say, “No, no. I’m lucky. This is my job.”

But the sud­den on­set of fame is a lot to han­dle. Olek­siak and the peo­ple around her couldn’t have an­tic­i­pated the ef­fects of the surg­ing at­ten­tion and commitments that sud­denly en­gulfed the young ath­lete. Even though her many dec­la­ra­tions of “#blessed” seemed gen­uine, the weight of ex­pec­ta­tions on any star is a bur­den that even the most world-weary adults have a tough time shoul­der­ing, let alone a 16-year-old who still didn’t have her driver’s li­cence. Olek­siak’s dra­matic breakthrough ar­rived at peak ado­les­cence, a time when kids are try­ing to fig­ure out what it is to be nor­mal (even if only to re­ject the con­sen­sus). Love, friend­ship, school—is any of this nor­mal?, the teen asks her­self con­stantly. What…is…hap­pen­ing?

But in sport, nor­mal sucks; the best are the out­liers, the ab­nor­mals, the ex­cep­tions. Olek­siak’s de­sire to be the very best—the one in a mil­lion—was re­al­ized on the public stage at ex­actly the mo­ment in the life cy­cle when most peo­ple are pri­vately (and of­ten quite badly) be­com­ing fully ac­tu­al­ized, rounded hu­mans like ev­ery­one else. This un­usual tim­ing has gone ter­ri­bly wrong for a lot of young suc­cess stories, like child ac­tors and boy bands and even ath­letes. Elaine Tan­ner was a 15-yearold Cana­dian swim star who tri­umphed at the Bri­tish Em­pire and Com­mon­wealth Games in 1966. She went on to win three medals at the 1968 Mex­ico City Olympics, but none were gold, and Tan­ner re­turned home a fail­ure. She re­tired at age 18, fol­lowed by decades of per­sonal tur­moil, debt and de­pres­sion.

It’s a lot to do ex­tra­or­di­nary things, and it’s a lot do the or­di­nary work of grow­ing up—the messy emo­tions and hor­monal spikes; the stum­bles and ro­mances and friend­ships and min­d­ex­pand­ing think­ing that col­lide as you fig­ure out who you are. In Olek­siak’s case, add to the mix the sur­prise role of “na­tional trea­sure,” and some­thing’s got to give.

The weight of ex­pec­ta­tions would be tough on any­one, let alone a 16-year-old who still didn’t have her driver’s li­cence

Olek­siak was re­jected by the first three swim clubs she tried out for, a story that con­jures up the scene in Pretty Wo­man where Julia Roberts re­turns to the Rodeo Drive bou­tiques that had re­buffed her, wav­ing shop­ping bags and yelling, “Big mis­take! Big! HUGE!” In fact, the re­jec­tions weren’t un­founded: at age nine, Penny wasn’t a very good swim­mer. But after a sum­mer spent in a neigh­bour’s back­yard pool, she was in­ter­ested. And once she’d tried vol­ley­ball, fig­ure skat­ing, soc­cer, jazz dance, bal­let and rhyth­mic gym­nas­tics, it was kind of the only sport left. Her par­ents, Ali­son, a sys­tems en­gi­neer for IBM, and Richard, a writer, ap­proached a small out­fit in Scar­bor­ough called the Toronto Olympian Swim Team. The coach, Gary Nolden, took note of Penny’s big hands and feet and her six­foot-nine fa­ther (this is the tri­fecta—hands, feet, dad—that coaches men­tion when de­scrib­ing what first struck them about meet­ing Penny). Long tor­sos and long arms help swim­mers cut through the wa­ter with less re­sis­tance and less wake. Nolden watched her swim, and—oy. Was that—what?—the front crawl? She did not know the strokes and her limbs were not en­tirely un­der her con­trol. Young Penny in the pool has been de­scribed as Bambi on ice in the wa­ter.

There are two kinds of swim­mers, ac­cord­ing to Nolden: those who fight the wa­ter and those who feel it. Over time, as Penny grew, she be­came light in the wa­ter. Un­like a lot of tall kids in the midst of rapid growth, she knew where her fin­gers and toes ended, and she could keep her core and body firmly in po­si­tion, mov­ing ef­fi­ciently, tor­pedo-like. She was also highly coach­able: mis­take, di­rec­tion, cor­rec­tion. She was tough, too: once, when do­ing pushups at the edge of the pool, her hand slipped, and she smashed her mouth on the deck, break­ing her tooth and ex­pos­ing the nerve. She showed up the next morn­ing to train, a dark gap in her smile.

What she needed was some­one to pur­sue. At prac­tice, she was al­ways pass­ing the kids in her own lane, and in her first sea­son she jumped up two lev­els. A year later, Penny was train­ing along­side a team­mate three years her se­nior.

Bill O’Toole, a coach from the Toronto Swim Club, saw her swim (hands, feet, dad), and Penny soon moved to the big­ger club, based at the U of T pool on Har­bord and home to sev­eral elite swim­mers. O’Toole de­scribes 13-year-old Penny as se­ri­ous­minded and quiet but also, when at ease, a goof­ball: Yoda, if Yoda were into Wendy’s and prank­ing.

Olek­siak kept win­ning. At the 2014 Cana­dian Age Group Cham­pi­onships, when she was 14, she won 10 in­di­vid­ual medals—five gold, three sil­ver and two bronze—plus three re­lay golds. Each in­di­vid­ual race was a per­sonal best.

Ben Tit­ley, the Bri­tish-born coach of the Cana­dian na­tional team, saw Penny train­ing in the pool at U of T his first week in Canada, in 2012. Tit­ley is a wry, hard-nosed, salt-and-pep­per­haired Brit—a wun­derkind “get” for Cana­dian swimming who had coached his swim­mers to 120 medals by the time he ar­rived in Canada to kick-start the na­tional pro­gram at age 34. Tit­ley took no­tice of Penny (hands, dad—he ac­tu­ally thinks her feet could be big­ger) and in­vited her to train with the na­tional team once a week, just to give her a sense that there re­ally were peo­ple faster than her out there. At the World Ju­niors in Sin­ga­pore, when she was 15 years old, Olek­siak won six medals.

One year be­fore the Rio Olympics, Olek­siak of­fi­cially joined the na­tional pro­gram, which had moved to the new High Per­for­mance Centre in Scar­bor­ough built for the Pan-Am Games. The older swim­mers nick­named her “The Child.” Once her ini­tial shy­ness melted away, Olek­siak’s role in the swim fam­ily be­came the cheer­ful lit­tle sis­ter, the con­fi­dence-builder who would dance in the ready room, jok­ing around to calm her nerves.

“Her per­cep­tion of re­al­ity was skewed,” said Tit­ley. “She thought it was nor­mal to be chas­ing these girls. She didn’t re­al­ize there was no other 15-year-old in the world who could get as close to beat­ing them.”

There was no plan for Olek­siak to storm the Olympics. She had been ear­marked for 2020 by the data crunch­ers at Swimming Canada. But in April 2016, at tri­als, she hit qual­i­fy­ing times that landed her on the team. As Olek­siak won medal after medal in Rio, Tit­ley in­structed her to limit her phone use so as to in­su­late her from the ex­plo­sion of ex­cite­ment hap­pen­ing at home. “Her re­al­ity be­came: ‘Ev­ery time I dive in, I win a medal.’ It gave her mo­men­tum,” said Tit­ley. So the team moved qui­etly from race to race, never cel­e­brat­ing or re­ally reg­is­ter­ing the scope of the achieve­ment un­til the eight days were over.

Olek­siak flew home be­fore the clos­ing cer­e­monies. She went to Canada’s Won­der­land and found it odd that peo­ple kept ap­proach­ing her. Her par­ents had said they’d buy her a dog after the Olympics, and this prom­ise was top of mind. Due to a lack of pup­pies at the shel­ter, she got a kit­ten in­stead—all black. She named it Rio.

The fam­ily that Rio joined lives in a mod­est house in the Beaches filled with books and art. The Olek­si­aks pos­sess a deep work ethic, but star­dom seems to have taken Penny’s par­ents by sur­prise—a breach of the fa­mil­ial bub­ble. The fam­ily is, above all, very tight. On her back, Penny has a tat­too of the co­or­di­nates of the fam­ily home. When she has a speech to make, of­ten her dad writes the first draft and Penny tweaks it. Richard Olek­siak was raised in Buf­falo and at­tended Nichols prep school, where he ex­celled in track, bas­ket­ball and foot­ball, then let­tered in track at Col­gate Uni­ver­sity. Ali­son is from Troon, Scot­land. She de­scribes her­self as com­ing from an ath­letic fam­ily and re­port­edly swam com­pet­i­tively in her youth. She’s the fam­ily’s mas­ter sched­uler, and Richard does the cook­ing and a lot of the driv­ing, be­cause he usu­ally works from home. Penny’s sis­ter, Hay­ley, puts it this way: “Mom is the an­a­lyt­i­cal, or­ga­nized one. Dad is the artist.”

Richard and Ali­son had three chil­dren, over­achiev­ers all: Jamie, seven years older than Penny, is a six-foot-seven de­fence­man for the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins, and Hay­ley, six years older, rowed at North­east­ern in Bos­ton. Richard has two kids from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage, one of whom played NCAA hockey.

Birth order might ex­plain Olek­siak’s propen­sity to chase: the youngest tends to try to keep up, even to pass. Hay­ley re­mem­bers her lit­tle sis­ter try­ing to out­run and outswim her when Penny was a tod­dler. But all the Olek­si­aks are com­pet­i­tive. Board games are rarely played, be­cause some­body usu­ally ends up cry­ing.

These days, with Mal­colm Glad­well’s “10,000 hours” rule in pocket, many par­ents push their kids hard, hop­ing for a fu­ture of, say, Olympic ap­pear­ances and NCAA schol­ar­ships—rou­tine oc­cur­rences in the Olek­siak fam­ily. But the Olek­si­aks never went the sin­gle-sport, early-stream­ing route. Even as she got pulled into the swim world, Penny kept up with soc­cer, vol­ley­ball and dance (com­pet­i­tive dance, nat­u­rally) un­til she was 14.

In the fall, I met her par­ents at an eas­t­end pub. “An ath­lete is just one slice of a whole per­son. If the whole per­son isn’t happy, then the ath­lete part isn’t go­ing to de­velop,” said Richard. “We didn’t care whether our kids did dance, swimming, mu­sic, pho­tog­ra­phy—we just wanted them to find some­thing they were pas­sion­ate about,” said Ali­son.

Well, that’s nice, but Jamie isn’t some strug­gling pho­tog­ra­pher; he plays with Sid­ney Crosby. So surely there’s some whip-crack­ing, Rus­sian gym­nas­tics coach–type par­ent­ing in the shad­ows? “My par­ents are amaz­ing,” Penny said later. “They in­vested so much time, so much money, so much effort into all of our ca­reers, but they’re not stage par­ents. If I wanted to quit swimming to­day and take up draw­ing, my par­ents would be like, ‘One hun­dred per cent. If that’s what you want to do, we will do it.’ ”

Well, that’s nice, too, but how? How can there be so many top-tier ath­letes in one fam­ily? At the pub, Richard, who shares Penny’s re­serve, asked if I’d read a book called The Sports Gene by David Ep­stein. Nope. He summed it up: a cel­lu­lar-level pre­dis­po­si­tion to hit a ball, swim faster or dunk is use­ful, but it’s mean­ing­less un­less the ath­lete pos­sesses a deep will to win and the drive to do the work. “Tal­ent plus en­ergy equals suc­cess,” said Richard, eat­ing a Bud­dha bowl. He had re­cently switched to a ve­gan diet to “ex­per­i­ment with dis­ci­pline.”

The Olek­siak fam­ily did their best to ease Penny into her new re­al­ity after the Olympics, but there was no tem­plate. Swimming Canada doesn’t of­fer a boot camp for star­dom. The last big Cana­dian swim celebrity was Mark Tewks­bury, who dou­blemedalled at Barcelona in 1992—in a much gen­tler, pre-dig­i­tal me­dia era—and was 24 at the time. Penny’s par­ents were feel­ing their way in the dark, try­ing to man­age a kid who wanted to revel in her hard-earned mo­ment and say yes to ev­ery in­vi­ta­tion while still get­ting up at 5:30 a.m. for train­ing and duck­ing out be­tween events at meets to fin­ish her home­work.

Even­tu­ally, Olek­siak re­al­ized some­thing needed to change. In the fall of 2017, she made a ma­jor move and left Ben Tit­ley, the na­tional team coach who had taken her to the Olympics. She re­joined Bill O’Toole at the U of T pool. From the out­side, it looked like a re­turn to the womb: the Toronto Swim Club had known her when she was young, and she had a goofy, cozy repartee with O’Toole.

At the same time, Olek­siak trans­ferred from Monarch Park to fin­ish Grade 11 at the Blyth Academy, a pri­vate school in Yorkville. The prox­im­ity of school to pool meant she’d prac­tise at 7 a.m., walk a few blocks to class and re­turn for af­ter­noon prac­tice; no more pa­ter­nal fer­ry­ing to Scar­bor­ough. Olek­siak

wasn’t happy about split­ting from her friends, but she’d missed so much school that a lot of them had al­ready grad­u­ated any­way. At the U of T pool, there was a level of anonymity that Olek­siak didn’t have when prac­tis­ing with the na­tional team. While she swam, uni­ver­sity stu­dents sat up in the bleach­ers eat­ing and typ­ing on their lap­tops, obliv­i­ous to who she was.

Last Fe­bru­ary, I watched her prac­tise there. The young swim­mers of the club were lined up at the div­ing boards. On the deck above Olek­siak’s lane, O’Toole stood hold­ing one end of a re­sis­tance cord that was at­tached to her waist. Olek­siak would swim out fast, and he would reel her back in like a fish, an ex­er­cise de­signed to teach her to make minute cor­rec­tions to her po­si­tion­ing. A TV crew was there to in­ter­view her about the up­com­ing Com­mon­wealth Games.

Olek­siak told me she liked be­ing back with her old team. “I’m just try­ing to re­mem­ber what it was like be­fore, how fun it was to swim.”

But at the Com­mon­wealth Games, two months later on Aus­tralia’s Gold Coast, she won two sil­vers in the re­lay and didn’t medal in any in­di­vid­ual events. In the 100-me­tre freestyle, the race that had brought her gold at the Olympics, she fin­ished fifth. The big story of those games quickly be­came a Cana­dian teen named Tay­lor Ruck, who had also been 16 years old in Rio and on the medal-win­ning re­lay team with Olek­siak. In Aus­tralia, Ruck tied the record for most medals won at the Com­mon­wealth Games, with eight. Olek­siak’s grand­mother, Richard’s mother, had died a few days be­fore the race. “Mourn­ing Penny fal­ters,” read one head­line. Another out­let spec­u­lated that per­haps a year-old con­cus­sion from a medicine ball work­out was to blame. Asked about all this con­jec­ture, Olek­siak told me, “Peo­ple try to make ex­cuses for you, but some­times it’s just—no, I’m not in the right state right now.”

By­ron Mc­Don­ald, U of T coach, for­mer Olympian and Canada’s vet­eran swimming broad­caster with the CBC, wasn’t sur­prised by the slower times. “In essence, what hap­pened to Penny after the Olympics—no­body was re­ally the gate­keeper,” he told me. “There was no play­book. Mis­takes were made in terms of time, over-com­mit­ment to spon­sor­ships, ap­pear­ances and school­work. She was so ex­hausted. If you’re not go­ing to get the re­cov­ery, you won’t do well the next day in train­ing. I think she wasn’t able to keep do­ing what she had done in the past, and if you don’t, then guess what? You don’t go as fast.”

Weeks after the Com­mon­wealth Games, Penny was the star guest at the launch of an ASICS store on Queen West. A cou­ple of days later, she was in­ducted into the Toronto Sport Hall of Honour. Out of the pool, she looked en­tirely dif­fer­ent than the shiny su­per­hu­man fig­ure of the Olympics. Her long hair was curled In­sta-worthily over the shoul­ders of her black leather jacket. With her full mouth and sleepy eyes, she bore a strik­ing re­sem­blance to the ac­tress Liv Tyler. But the ve­neer of the glam­orous adult was bro­ken when I later asked her, “What’s your favourite sub­ject?” and elicited a kind of free-float­ing, very teenage un­cer­tainty. “I like math, be­cause it’s hard. But I also like English. Chem­istry. I’m into po­etry. I don’t even know. I’m con­fused for uni­ver­sity.”

Olek­siak’s par­ents and her sis­ter were with her. At one point, I looked over, and their four heads were bowed to­gether in a foot­ball hud­dle, like a phys­i­cal ap­prox­i­ma­tion of the pro­tec­tive shield they are. It’s Ali­son who is al­ways re­mind­ing Penny that the drug test peo­ple can—and do—show up on the doorstep any­time to watch her pee, so she shouldn’t use a char­coal face mask or drink any­thing with ginger in it, just in case it reads as a banned sub­stance. Ali­son, es­pe­cially, gets up­set over neg­a­tive press around any Olek­siak (ev­ery­one tells her not to look—but she looks).

To help with the crush of me­dia re­quests, the fam­ily hired a PR agency. On the oc­ca­sions when Penny and I were able to meet, a friendly pub­li­cist named Erin was al­ways hov­er­ing. As phones clicked and a TV crew cir­cled, I asked Richard what he made of this event. “Dis­trac­tion,” he said.

Penny and I were sched­uled to meet soon after the event, in April, but sud­denly she was fly­ing out to at­tend a train­ing camp in Gainesville, Florida, along­side Ryan Lochte and Caeleb Dres­sel, a 22-year-old Olympian now la­belled the fastest swim­mer in the world. The pres­ence of these stars was es­sen­tial. “Penny’s a grey­hound,” said her dad. “She needs a bunny to chase.”

No one knew when she’d be back from Florida. Leav­ing Toronto seemed like an effort to de­liver her back to the el­e­ments: the wa­ter, the chase. “I get very nos­tal­gic to go back to where we were,” Richard said, ref­er­enc­ing the months lead­ing up to Rio. “You can’t elim­i­nate ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pened from then to now. But how do you repli­cate that kind of at­mos­phere so that she can per­form well? That’s where we are now.”

“What hap­pened to Penny after the Olympics—there was no play­book. Mis­takes were made. She was ex­hausted”

In Gainesville, she lived in a lit­tle apart­ment, notic­ing ga­tors in the swamps. She liked be­ing around Dres­sel and Lochte (yes, she tried to catch them in train­ing; no, she didn’t), watch­ing them closely to un­der­stand how highly dis­ci­plined ath­letes can switch from silly to laser-fo­cused in a split sec­ond. Dres­sel doesn’t do a lot of so­cial me­dia or have In­sta­gram on his phone, and this in­spired Olek­siak to turn her no­ti­fi­ca­tions off. “I learned there’s no point in hav­ing so­cial me­dia right now. If it’s just go­ing to mean peo­ple scru­ti­niz­ing you all the time and watch­ing you, what’s the point?”

After a cou­ple of months, she re­turned home to Toronto. Her mom thought Penny was look­ing tired and stressed—Penny’s last real va­ca­tion was in 2014—and sug­gested she pull out of the Pan-Pacifics in Tokyo in Au­gust. Olek­siak so­licited shouldI-or-shouldn’t-I ad­vice from peo­ple she trusted. She called rep­re­sen­ta­tives at Swimming Canada and sur­veyed her friends. “I was think­ing about it, and I was like, ‘Why do I feel like I have to do all this stuff all the time?’ ” she said. Olek­siak had be­gun to see a sports psy­chol­o­gist for the first time and checked in with her, too.

The im­por­tance of the men­tal com­po­nent in sports is well known by now, so I was sur­prised to hear that she came late to it. “I don’t think I re­al­ized how big of a piece it is un­til re­cently,” said Olek­siak. (Cate Camp­bell, the Aus­tralian swim­mer who was pegged to win the Gold that Penny took in Rio, re­ceived a cheer­ful “I’ve booked out a boardroom in the of­fice so we can all watch you!” text mes­sage right be­fore the race, which she claims frayed her men­tally and cost her the medal.) But then again, with her in­born drive and place in a fam­ily of out­liers, Olek­siak’s men­tal strength was just another norm un­til now, a given.

Olek­siak has a small but tight cir­cle of friends that got smaller and tighter after the Olympics when, all of a sud­den, a lot of peo­ple wanted to know her. (She still re­ceives regular DMs ask­ing for prom dates.) After lis­ten­ing to feed­back from her con­fi­dantes, in July, Olek­siak put the brakes on. It be­came head­line news in the sports pages. She re­treated from press re­quests, be­came scarce on so­cial me­dia and scaled back her train­ing.

She spent her sum­mer do­ing teen things, like hit­ting the Boots and Hearts coun­try fes­ti­val near Oril­lia and the Drake and Mi­gos show downtown. Her good friend Crys­tal Luga said that she wanted Olek­siak to use her name to get back­stage, but she wouldn’t do it. (ASICS helped them get good seats, though.) To Luga, Olek­siak is just her in­tro­verted, loyal, funny friend, whose big­gest achieve­ment, Olympics be damned, is her abil­ity to per­fectly re­cite the lyrics to Mi­gos songs and fit more M&Ms in her mouth than any­one on the planet. For Olek­siak’s 18th birth­day, she went to a cot­tage with some friends. She passed her driver’s test and bought her­self a car. She swam a cou­ple of times a week at her lo­cal public pool, just to make sure she didn’t lose her feel for the wa­ter. Her In­sta­gram showed her in a bikini on a beach in St. Lu­cia (#vichy, a sun­screen that spon­sors her—so maybe the work never fully stops). It was no longer clear what swim club she was af­fil­i­ated with, and when we tried to meet up, her pub­li­cist said that she wasn’t even in Toronto. The cur­tains had been drawn; a grand ges­ture of self­p­reser­va­tion was un­der­way.

In Au­gust, we sat down at Soho House for breakfast. Olek­siak seemed lighter and less guarded than when we’d talked sev­eral months ear­lier. She told me that she needed time to chill out, to es­cape from the spot­light.

“It’s weird grow­ing up and hav­ing to deal with all this stuff with swimming and then also all my nor­mal teenager prob­lems,” she said, not eat­ing her av­o­cado toast. “I have this other side of me where I’m a swim­mer and I have to act pro­fes­sional all the time. It’s weird grow­ing up with all of this go­ing on.”

Of the myr­iad changes that af­flict the young, the bod­ily ones can be the most jar­ring, yet Penny’s large frame is also the source of her im­mense tal­ent. She has strug­gled with hat­ing her body— the height and tri­an­gu­lar shape of broad shoul­ders, thin hips. But at the pool, she will make her­self as big as pos­si­ble to in­tim­i­date other swim­mers on the blocks. “In my swimming life I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have big­ger arms and big­ger legs than ev­ery­one, and I look ripped! I love it!’ Then at school, I’ll hide my arms be­cause I don’t want to look so big. I’ll try to slouch down,” she said. That di­vide is some­thing she’s been clos­ing. “I re­al­ize I need this body to do what I want to do. I’ve come to terms with it pretty re­cently. I re­ally like my body, and I like what I’m do­ing, and I like how swimming shaped me as a per­son.” She talked about the young girls who tell her that they’re try­ing swimming be­cause of her or feel­ing bet­ter about be­ing so tall. She loves that.

Olek­siak said that the break from com­pet­i­tive swimming was just tem­po­rary. She was work­ing through op­tions on where to land in the fall: which club, which coach, which city—all of it un­de­cided. I asked what she’d be do­ing if none of this—the fame, the pres­sure—had hap­pened. “I have no clue,” she said. “I’ve just pushed that to the back of my mind. It’s some­thing I don’t need to think about be­cause the more I think about that, the more I’m go­ing to be like, ‘How could my life be dif­fer­ent? Could my life be bet­ter?’ ”

I switched it around and asked her to look for­ward, won­der­ing what things would be like for her in a decade. Swimming isn’t hockey; yes, she has en­dorse­ments, but there’s rarely a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar pay­day for swim­mers.

“It freaks me out when I think, How many more years do I have in my ca­reer? Ryan Lochte is 34 and still go­ing. That’s a crazy amount of time for me. But if I just keep get­ting bet­ter and lov­ing what I’m do­ing, I def­i­nitely would want that. I can see my­self do­ing this till I’m like 33, 34,” she said, fi­nally tak­ing a bite of the toast. “As long as I keep lov­ing it.”

Fol­low­ing our Soho House breakfast, Olek­siak was headed to the Rogers Cup, where De­nis Shapo­valov was play­ing. They had been pho­tographed to­gether, and gos­sip about a teen ro­mance en­sued, prob­a­bly be­cause the idea ful­fills some deeply held Gat­taca-es­que wish for a merger of phys­i­cally su­pe­rior hu­mans. “We’re just friends. That was weird be­cause at the time I did have a boyfriend.” She isn’t with that boyfriend now; he’s off at uni­ver­sity like a lot of her friends. Olek­siak still has a few cour­ses to take be­fore fin­ish­ing Grade 12.

“It’s weird grow­ing up and hav­ing to deal with swimming and then also all my nor­mal teenager prob­lems,” she said, not eat­ing her av­o­cado toast

A few weeks later, Olek­siak met with Tit­ley, the coach who had brought her to the Olympics. She had looked at the cal­en­dar, seen that the Olympics were only two years away and made the de­ci­sion to re­turn to the place that had helped her break through in her sport. “I wanted to go some­where that I know works for me. Ben knows me bet­ter than any­one. He holds me ac­count­able.” She told him she wanted to be the best; he said he could get her there. All he re­quired was to­tal com­mit­ment.

On a dark Oc­to­ber morn­ing, 10 months after we first met, I drove out to the Pan Am pool in Scar­bor­ough. At 7 a.m., a few wet-haired, ba­nanaeat­ing kids were milling in the lobby, car­ry­ing fins in mesh bags, await­ing pick-up. The Pan Am Centre is high-ceilinged and sleek, with three pools, mul­ti­ple gyms and a faintly chem­i­cal scent. For swim­mers, it’s the most so­phis­ti­cated venue in Canada, with state-of-the-art tools for data col­lec­tion, video play­back for per­for­mance anal­y­sis, mas­sage and phys­io­ther­a­pists wait­ing in the wings, and one of the fastest pools in the coun­try.

The morn­ing I vis­ited, Olek­siak’s train­ing meant mov­ing be­tween dry land and wa­ter work­outs, four of each, for two and a half hours. In a win­dow­less back room, on a set of yel­low judo mats left over from the Pan Am games, she worked out among a hand­ful of na­tional team swim­mers, male and fe­male, do­ing squats and dead lifts un­der the eyes of two train­ers. Gang­ster rap blasted (Olek­siak’s choice).

By the pool, Tit­ley was get­ting the short course ready. Olek­siak de­scribes him as tough, and he does wield a dry Bri­tish sense of hu­mour. He reamed me out (jok­ingly, I think) for be­ing late and men­tioned that swim­mers who are late don’t swim.

When Olek­siak was at the Olympics in 2016, she had the no­body ad­van­tage: no ex­pec­ta­tions, no pres­sure, no­body watch­ing. Tit­ley’s chal­lenge is to make her feel that way again—to erase, in ef­fect, two years of noise and bring her back to the si­lence.

“Penny the per­son is a re­ally nice girl, but Penny the ath­lete needed to de­cide what’s im­por­tant to her,” he said. “I told her, ‘You can’t be nor­mal in all ar­eas. You prob­a­bly won’t able to go out and party and do what your friends do on a Satur­day night. If you want to be ex­cep­tional in one area, you have to give up some­thing else in another.’ ” Coach­ing is rep­e­ti­tion, said Tit­ley, and the plan is to get back to ba­sics, start­ing with train­ing twice a day, six days a week.

Of her time in the wilder­ness, Tit­ley was non­plussed, not­ing, “Whilst it’s fabulous that she’s taken time to be­come more at peace with her­self in so­ci­ety and sport and pop­u­lar cul­ture, with the great­est re­spect, the rest of the world does not care. The peo­ple she’s lined up with don’t care. They laugh at it. They say, ‘That’s nice, but while you’ve been do­ing that, I’ve been get­ting bet­ter.’ She needs to get bet­ter at a faster rate than all her ri­vals in the world.”

But of course, she will never again be new, with­out pres­sure, un­ac­quainted with fail­ure. She will never get back to the time be­fore—which is re­ally the state of adult­hood, this cast­ing back­ward, long­ingly.

The swim­mers moved to the edge of the pool, where Olek­siak was gig­gling and chat­ting with team­mate Kayla Sanchez. Olek­siak was pulling faces like a kid. Sanchez slapped her butt, and Olek­siak pushed her in the pool, laugh­ing. ∫

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Olek­siak, then just 16 years old, won four medals, in­clud­ing gold in the 100-me­tre freestyle

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